Education Chat

Does the National Math Panel’s Report Add Up?

The National Math Panel has called for a new, streamlined teaching approach for early-grades math to better prepare students for algebra. Two former National Math Panel members discussed the report.

Does the National Math Panel’s Report Add Up?

Tuesday, May 5, 2 p.m. to 3 p.m. Eastern time

The National Math Panel, a White House-commissioned task force, has called for a new, streamlined teaching approach for early-grades math to better prepare students for algebra. The panel’s report calls for more focus on whole numbers, fractions, and geometry, but it also makes broader suggestions about the work that parents, teachers, and others can do to encourage young students’ learning of math. The recommendations made a big splash among educators, but critics say the math strategies outlined by the panel are too narrow.

Two former National Math Panel members discussed the report’s impact on teachers, curriculum directors, academic researchers, and education publishers.

Guests: Francis M. “Skip” Fennell, professor of education at McDaniel College, former National Mathematics Advisory Panel member

Vern Williams, math teacher at Longfellow Middle School, in Falls Church, Va., former National Mathematics Advisory Panel member

Related Stories:Panel Calls for Systematic, Basic Approach to Math
Efforts Undertaken to Publicize Math Panel’s Results

Sean Cavanagh, assistant editor at Education Week, moderated this chat.

Live Chat: Does the National Math Panel’s Report Add Up?(05/05/2009)


1:32 Sean Cavanagh: Thanks to everyone for joining us today. I’m Sean Cavanagh, an Assistant Editor at Education Week. You are free to begin submitting questions. Our guests will begin providing answers at 2 p.m. We appreciate your interest in this subject.


Sean Cavanagh: Wecome to Education Week’s online chat, “Does the National Math Panel’s Report Add Up?”

We’d like to thank our sponsor of this chat, Carnegie Learning.

I’ll begin by asking both Vern and Skip to introduce themselves briefly, explaining where they work now, and their connection to elementary and middle grades math.

2:04 Sean Cavanagh: I’ll post this first question, from Matt, to Vern Williams.

2:04 Francis (Skip) Fennell: Hi, I am Francis (Skip) Fennell. A former classroom teacher, principal, and supervisor, I have taught at McDaniel College for over 30 years and I am the MOST recent Past President of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.

2:04 [Comment From Matt]
How do we use the recommendations to improve daily instruction for our children?


Vern Williams:

I’m Vern Williams and I have been teaching middle school math in Fairfax County VA for about thirty-six years. I’m currently teaching at Longfellow Middle School in Falls Church VA.

2:06 Francis (Skip) Fennell: I figure I will just jump in here too - I think the recommendations re: conceptual understanding, fluency and problem solving have immediate impact in classrooms - every day, as do those involve formative assessment, as starters here.

2:07 Vern Williams: I have benn concentrating more on the basics of arithmetic even with my algebra classes because as the report stated, there is a problem with the arithmetic backgrounds of even our brightest students.

2:08 Sean Cavanagh: Let me follow up on Matt’s question with one that may be relevant to some members of our audience. Are there recommendations in the panel’s report that a relevant not only to teachers -- but to parents, for helping children? This one’s for both of you.

2:09 Francis (Skip) Fennell: Well, sure - the fact that effort makes a difference. Teachers need support. They can’t do it all. Parents and other caregivers can provide support at home, at rec centers, wherever. We needs kids to care about this subject - everyday.


Vern Williams:

I would hope that parents become more proactive in the math education of their children by researching the materials/textbooks used at their childrens’ school. They would be wise to make sure that their children are receiving an excellent grounding in the basics.

2:11 Sean Cavanagh: Thank you. I will direct this next question to both of you, about teaching in Japan, and collaborations between teachers.

2:11 [Comment From Guest]
As seen in the TIMSS study, Japan does something where teachers are required to get together so many hours a week to work on perfecting one lesson plan. They focus on major drawback areas such as fractions, and work and rework the lessons together. Throughout the process the lesson is taught, with other teachers present to evaluate how effective the lesson is. Do you think a process like this would help math education in the lower grades.

2:13 Francis (Skip) Fennell: The Japenese Lesson Study model has become quite popular in this country and seems to be making a real difference as a Professional Development model. That said, just the opportunity to think carefully (as a group of teachers) has potential in improving teaching.


Sean Cavanagh: Just a bit of background about the panel:

The National Mathematics Advisory Panel was created through an executive order signed by President George W. Bush on April 18, 2006. The panel was given two years to produce recommendations, based on the “best available scientific evidence,” on the “critical skills and skill progressions for students to acquire competence in algebra and readiness for higher levels of mathematics.” The panel had 19 voting and five non-voting members, who included cognitive psychologists, mathematicians, representatives of think tanks and professional organizations and other math experts.

2:14 Vern Williams: Yes, however we need to first make sure that our elementary and middle school teachers understand the math content enough to actually plan and conduct excellent lessons as they do in Japan.

2:15 Sean Cavanagh: I’ll put this next question, from Giselle, to Skip.

2:15 [Comment From Giselle Galper]
There seems to be huge controversy regarding the warning in the first recommendation regarding textbooks that revisit topics year after year without closure. Some people say all US textbooks have this problem. I think this confuses textbooks that focus on review of mastered material with textbooks that don’t emphasize mastery on the first pass. What is your interpretation of the warning?


Sean Cavanagh:

Here’s some more background on the panel’s finding for our viewers:

One major conclusion of the panel is that a few key areas of elementary and middle school math are “critical foundations” to students’ mastery of algebra. Those foundations are: proficiency with whole numbers, fractions, and elements of geometry and measurement. A coherent, and sequential approach to teaching math is especially important, the panel found.

2:17 Francis (Skip) Fennell: Actually the warning from the Instructional Materials subgroup is that American textbooks in PreK-8 mathematics (and algebra, I might add) are huge! 750 pages at 3rd grade! Is all of that “stuff” important for 8 year olds - probably not. So, the sense is to figure out the focus, figure out the important mathematics at the various levels and do that VERY WELL.

2:17 Sean Cavanagh: Thanks. Vern, this person may have attended the panel’s Baltimore meeting -- or at least looked at the transcript. Can you answer Cheryl’s question.

2:17 [Comment From Cheryl Jaffe]
Mr. Williams, Your quote regarding the math preparation of elementary teachers at a NMP meeting in Baltimore (see below) was very memorable. Can you speak to the respective roles of teachers and curriculum in improving math education in the U.S.? “Can I just make one comment? It’s embarrassing. This is very, very embarrassing, to say that a teacher, who has had a K-12 education and four years of college and happens to be teaching fourth grade, should at least know sixth grade math.”


What is the most important step policymakers could take to improve the quality of elementary and middle grades math instruction?
Revamp math curriculum
( 36% )

Improve professional development
( 36% )

Strengthen teacher liscensure requirements
( 7% )

Promote elementary math “specialists”
( 19% )

Improve quality of math tests
( 1% )

2:19 Francis (Skip) Fennell: I will pile on again here. Vern is right, math teachers at every level should know the mathematics way beyond, say, their 4th grade assignment. It is my job and the job of others to ensure such mathematical content (and pedagogical) knowledge. I take Vern’s comment very seriously.

2:22 Sean Cavanagh: I know the panel’s main focus was elementary and middle school math, but Skip, but Denise has a question/comment about high school math, and Algebra 2. Can you speak to this?

2:22 [Comment From Denise]
What is the likelihood of two options for the third year of high school math? The NMAP seems to recommend a full course of Algebra 2. (page 16 of the report)

2:23 Vern Williams: I would also like to comment on the question from Giselle. Some textbooks introduce a unit and cover it in depth. They then revisit the topic throughout the text. However, some textbooks vaguely introduce a topic and revisit it almost disguised throughout the text. That is the real difference.


Sean Cavanagh: More background for our audience today:

One of the more interesting points of discussion in the panel report focused on elementary math “specialists.” Most elementary school math in the United States is taught by “generalist” teachers, who are expected to cover all subjects – from math to science to language arts – during the course of a school day. Some observers have suggested that U.S. schools would be better off using elementary math “specialists,” who teach only that subject in school. The panel did not make a specific recommendation about the use of math specialists. It did, however, call for more research in that area, saying that specialists could be a practical alternative to attempting to increase all elementary teachers’ math content knowledge, which the group described as “a problem of huge scale.”

What do you think of the use of specialists in elementary math?

2:25 Francis (Skip) Fennell: The charge of the panel was to try and determine what it would take for students (all students) to gain entry into and have success in algebra. While we know success in algebra is a passport to higher education and (of course) higher level mathematics. This mathematics may be found within an integrated curriculum or other ways (which occurs in most countries of the world) in which the mathematics may be delivered. I find more and more states and school districts thinking hard about the 4th year of mathematics for all students.

2:28 Sean Cavanagh: Thank you, Skip. I will direct this one to Vern, though you’re both free to answer, regarding the math panel’s impact at the local level.

2:28 [Comment From Lynn]
Our district just went through a textbook adoption process where stakeholders debated the weight that should be given to the National Math Panel’s recommendations. Some thought your work should be the authority and others felt it should be one of many studies/opinions that should guide us. Which was intended and, if the former, what can be done to require or at least encourage school districts and school boards to look to the Panel’s work when selecting textbooks?

2:32 Sean Cavanagh: Skip this question -- from C. Molina -- pertains to the panel’s impact on state departments of ed. Can you offer your thoughts?

2:32 [Comment From C. Molina]
What can state departments walk away with and utilize from the NMP Report?

2:34 Sean Cavanagh: Here’s a question from Dan, regarding fractions, which I’ll answer.

2:34 [Comment From dan heisey]
What are the most critical fraction skills for 5th grade math?


Francis (Skip) Fennell:

My opinion is that with 40+ recommendations there must be something for most anyone - most anyone. What are take aways for me - less is more in ensuring that all students have a strong foundation, elementary mathematics specialists - are, at minimum, a good idea (he says with admitted bias), the fact that conceptual understanding, procedural fluency, and problem solving are ALL important - all the time. That’s enough - there are others.


Sean Cavanagh: Dan,

The section of the panel’s report on the importance of fractions (page 18) says that students should be able to locate positive and negative fractions on a number line; represent and compare fractions, decimals and related percents, and estimate their size. It also says, among other points, that students should be able to understand fractions in many contexts, as they arise naturally.

2:37 Francis (Skip) Fennell: I love the fraction question - for 5th grade - more on just work with fractions and decimals and related percents, comfort in comparing and ordering them, moving toward proficiency with addition and subtraction and, of course, solving problems involving fractions in the situations noted.

2:38 Sean Cavanagh: Skip: Here’s one from Amy about the criticism that was directed at the panel. Another audience members claimed that qualitative research has been ignored in the panel’s work. How do you respond.

2:38 [Comment From Amy]
Lately, there have been criticizing the NMAP and its results. Many have said that the research does not add up. How do you counter and address this movement?

2:39 Sean Cavanagh: Vern, here’s one from Charlotte about Algebra 1.

2:39 [Comment From Charlotte]
At what grade/age level do you feel most students should take Algebra I?

2:40 Vern Williams: Sorry,
I was disconnected for a few minutes. As for Lynn’s comment, I would hope that the NMP report can be used as a blueprint for school systems and even states to set curriculum policies. Perhaps financial incentives via the federal government would be helpful.

2:41 Francis (Skip) Fennell: I don’t know that I would counter the claim. Were the panelists given more time to work and were the ‘guidelines’ different a more complete range of research - qualitative through all versions of quasi-experimental and experimental design could have (and I would hope would have) been explored and examined.

2:42 Sean Cavanagh: Here’s a question regarding teacher qualifications/ liscensure, as it pertains to math teaching. Either of you is welcome respond.

2:42 [Comment From John]
What do you think about changing licensure requirements to make them more specific? For science courses, teachers become certified in a subject (biology, chemistry, etc.) What about having a 7-10, or a 7-12 option?

2:42 Francis (Skip) Fennell: Re: the algebra I question - when they are ready - not before. While we have 40% or more of our 8th graders completing algebra, far too many lack the prerequisites for success.

2:44 [Comment From Sean Monroe]
One of the biggest findings by the panel was the lack of Teacher content knowledge in the math. How would a district address this issue with new and veteran teachers who need this help?

2:44 Sean Cavanagh: Either Skip or Vern are welcome to answer Sean Monroe’s question, above -- regarding teachers who struggle with math content.

2:45 Francis (Skip) Fennell: I believe Arkansas has initiated a teacher education plan that, for example, if you are teaching algebra at the middle school level you must have specific coursework ensuring you have a background in the subject. I do think spelling out, particularly what’s expected re: middle school mathematics is important. For me, high school teachers should have a major in the subject (and most do).


Vern Williams:


Excellent question! Of course my standard answer is when they are ready, i.e. when they have a strong background in arithmetic which includes being able to compute and understand the basic concepts behind arithmetic. The push for every student taking algebra by eighth grade is causing problems ranging from poor algebra skills to pretend algebra courses.

2:47 Francis (Skip) Fennell: The teacher content knowledge question is a good one. All teachers need refreshing re: mathematics content. In far too many places (and Vern has great stories here) math teachers don’t have an opportunity to get around content as the focus for their PD. This is challenging for supervisors to arrange for lots of good reasons, but it is critically important - for every level of mathematics teacher from PreK-AP Calc.

2:48 Sean Cavanagh: Skip, I know you have spoken a bit about the use of elementary math “specialists” in the past. Can you and Vern give us your thoughts on whether “specialists” are desirable, or feasible, in K-8 math?

2:49 Sean Cavanagh: Vern, I’ll direct this questions to you from Mikki - regarding teachers projecting their struggles in math to students.

2:49 [Comment From Mikki Bullard]
I think a problem is that elementary school teachers, many of them, view math as a difficult subject and present the same view to their students. Is there any way to stop this?


Vern Williams:


Back in the day if you wanted to teach math to seventh graders you had to be certified to teach 7-12. Even though I teach seventh and eighth graders, I use concepts that I might also use if I taught seniors in high school. So bring back 7-12 certification!


Sean Cavanagh: Last year, the U.S. Department of Education undertook a number of efforts to publicize the findings of the National Math Panel. I wrote a story about this work at

The department’s work included the distribution of 160,000 pamphets for parents, highlighting the panel’s recommendations. The department also promoted the panel’s work on the “Doing What Works” web site, at

Should the Obama administration take an active role in promoting the panel’s findings? And if so, how?

2:50 Francis (Skip) Fennell: My opinion is that we need to consider ways to certify elementary mathematics specialists in every state. Such folks would have a solid background in mathematics and pedagogy and be able to not only mentor their colleagues but provide building-wide leadership as well as instructional support in mathematics. There are programs in various states that are beginning to do this and/or have done it for a few years (e.g. Virginia Commonwealth University).


Vern Williams:

Sean Monroe

Give the veteran teachers real inservice involving real math content instead of force feeding them the newest teaching methods.

2:54 Sean Cavanagh: Vern or Skip, any comments on how math “coaches” can survive the pressure to cut budgets?

2:54 [Comment From Terri Postlethwait]
With budgets the way there are and “coaches” being cut at a large number of districts nationwide, how do think they would fund these positions??

2:56 Francis (Skip) Fennell: Great question. Given the ARRA (stimulus) funds it may be a great time to get such coaches or find ways to keep them. Also given the increase in Title I funds perhaps support can be found using this source of funding.

2:56 Sean Cavanagh: Vern and Skip: A question from Gregg about where the panel’s work is likely to go from here.

2:56 [Comment From Greg Williams]
What do think will be the most noticable changes in the teaching of mathematics as a result of the Panel’s recommendations?


Vern Williams:


Pre-service elementary school teachers should be required to take more mathematics courses in college and inservice teachers as I stated in a previous comment should be exposed to more content through professional development. We also need to include mathematicians in designing courses for both pre-service and inservice teachers.


Sean Cavanagh: One issue that emerged in the panel’s work:

While the panel concluded that more research is needed in many areas of math, it also found the differences in the quality of teaching play a substantial role in students’ math achievement. Differences in teachers account for 12 percent to 14 percent of the total variability in students’ math achievement gains during an elementary school year, the panel found. At the same time, relatively little is known about what makes an effective math teacher, the panelists said. Is it their background in course content? Professional degrees? Performance on teacher licensure exams? Or teacher certification? Little is know. See Education Week’s story on this topic from last year: “Essential Qualities of Math Teaching Remain Unknown”:

2:58 Francis (Skip) Fennell: If we can recognize that importance of fewer mathematics topics done well (lots of coverage in various ways) and the links between conceptual understanding, procedural fluency and problem solving - at every level of mathematics I’m happy. Oh, and yes it way past time to consider the potential of elem. math specialists.


Sean Cavanagh: We’re nearing the end of our alloted time. A reminder that a transcript of the discussion will be available on the same page viewer went to today.


Sean Cavanagh: That’s all the time we have. Thanks for all of the great questions, and to Skip and Vern for their hard work (and fast typing) today.

We’d also like to thank our sponsor, Carnegie Learning..

3:03 Francis (Skip) Fennell: Thank all of you including those who posed the great questions. Sorry for the typos - I caught a couple of them!


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