“They Will Never Need This Math”

As a parent of a child with a disability and as a math educator, I am repeatedly struck by the fact that a group of adults (educators and professionals) convene to discuss and plan how to help a child. A great deal of time, resources, and money is concentrated on that child. Awesome! Unfortunately, in math education I frequently encounter situations in which this collective energy is concentrated on math that is more about boxes to check than engaging the student in math that he or she will need in post-secondary life.

IDEA enumerates the purpose of special education, with the transition goals aligned with employment, living skills, and future education that are desired for each individual student. This is explicit and aligns with the goal most teachers likely have, to make a difference in the lives of their students.

Despite this, when I am called in to help with math programming for a student I often find the math being presented to the student is not aligned with the post-secondary goals and often appear to the result of following the general ed curriculum, by default. Here are some examples.

  • I co-taught an algebra 1 class with a student impacted by autism to the point that he needed a paraprofessional guiding him through the daily work. He worked in isolation with the para and struggled with the basic elements of the course. It was not until his junior year that he was moved to a consumer math class. 
  • A senior was in a consumer math course I taught. The course was for students who could not access the general curriculum, yet her transition goal for education was to attend a community college. This setting likely require a math course (that did not have consumer math topics) and a placement test.
  • I was called in by a district to help a 10th grader who was not grasping the basic math or pre-algebra that was presented for months. He was showing significant task avoidance. The postsecondary education goal was for him to attend a community college. I started algebra work with him immediately and he was grasping it.
  • Over 25 years of teaching math I have periodically heard educators minimize the struggles of students with math with the rationalization “they will never need this math.” My response is to ask why “then we are presenting this math to them?!”

So what math do they need? Here is a list of blog posts that address this question. In short, here is what I share with IEP teams, educators, parents, and special ed teacher candidates I teach.

  • If the goal is a career that involves a 4 year degree, then boxes must be checked. The student will have to have the math courses needed to get into the college and to prepare for the math in his or her major. This is the “mathy math” that will be on a college placement test as well.
  • For a 2 year degree at a school with open admissions, the focus of the high school math can be narrowed to the math course required (if any) and on the placement test. Typically, this would involve a focus on algebra. For the aforementioned 10th grader, we did not cover geometry and prioritized the algebra topics to cover. 
  • For a vocation, cover the math needed for that vocation. For example, I worked out a long range plan for 7th grader whose mother shared that may work in an auto repair setting. The math needed for that vocation is measurement so the plan focused on measurement and life skills/consumer math. 
  • For another middle school student whose goal was to have a job and to be as independent as possible. He loved sports and his mother said he would love to work in a sports related store. For him I recommended data and statistics (not the mathy type but meaningful and applied stats and data) to help him make sense of and discuss sports stats. This was complemented by a recommendation for consumer math.

Students should be presented the math they NEED.

6 Replies to ““They Will Never Need This Math””

  1. My hands are tied on this issue. Colorado requires a gened student to have 3 yrs of math including 1 year at the “alg2” level.

    IDEA requires a student, who is not intellectually disabled, to be given the same gened curriculum. In a dear colleague letter, it states that any student (who is not intellectually disabled) can acquire the required gened material if only their IEP would provide proper accommodations. Not modifications, accommodations. A reality based course like consumer math is not part of the solution set I’m allowed to consider.

    1. The osep guidance that I keep getting referred to in terms of HS sped students being mapped into gened requirements is this one:


      November 16, 2015

      Dear Colleague:
      It includes this note:

      “Research has demonstrated that children with disabilities who struggle in reading and mathematics can successfully learn grade-level content and make significant academic progress when appropriate instruction, services, and supports are provided.”

      The only exception being students with severe cognitive disabilities.

  2. Thank you for the feedback.

    Here are some additional points of consideration.

    1) In the letter you cite is the following, “The standards must be clearly related to grade-level content, although they may be restricted in scope or complexity or take the form of introductory or pre-requisite skills.” This leaves a tremendous amount of leeway in math when identifying “pre-requisite skills.” Also included in the letter is the following, “This alignment, however, must guide but not replace the individualized decision-making required in the IEP process.”

    2) Based on discussion on sites like Wrightslaw, it appears that there are a tremendous number of students in secondary education who are far behind grade level standards (which is ambiguous at the high school level). School districts take this into account in regard to a state exit exam or to demonstrate “competency” as they do in Colorado. I see in the Denver PS website that in lieu of an exit exam, a capstone portfolio can be used to show competency. There are 4 types of portfolios, including a “transition readiness” for students who are “Significantly Impacted Academically and who have an IEP” with the term “academically” in lieu of “cognitively.”

    Tracking is a means of addressing this issue. A common track for students on the lower end of achievement is to have a terminal course that is, in effect, a means of getting a 4th credit. For example, at JFK HS in Denver, this track ends with “Personal Finance” in which the course description includes “personal budgets.”

    My point is that districts find a way to make the credits work to allow students to graduate. IDEA is sufficiently ambiguous to allow for all types of justifications, e.g., “prerequisites” identified in my first point. This flexibility can be used to meet student needs and the districts have shown a willingness to do this when it comes to graduation rates.

  3. Hello, i am looking for ideas to differentiate scientific notation, and even operations with scientific notation. i think that is a difficult concept to differentiate.

    1. Hey Troy. By differentiate, do you mean initial instruction that is useful for all students? I will mull over this and share some ideas, likely with a post.

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