Research Notes

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Integrating Math Courses

High school students who followed an innovative mathematics curriculum that emphasizes real-world problem-solving got better grades than their peers not only in math, but in all their subjects, a study has found.

The Interactive Mathematics Program, developed by educators in California, integrates four years of courses that usually are kept separate: algebra, geometry, trigonometry, and pre-calculus. Students also learn concepts from probability and statistics.

To evaluate the curriculum, researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison studied transcripts of more than 1,000 students who graduated in 1993 from three California high schools that have used the program since 1989. They examined the number and types of math courses the students took, their standardized-test scores, and the grade-point averages of both students who had taken the curriculum and those who had not.

They found that students in the imp program had an overall grade-point average of 3.02, or slightly better than a B. Students who took traditional math courses averaged 2.62, or between a C-plus and a B-minus.

The transcript study is part of a five-year evaluation of the program being completed by Norman L. Webb, a research scientist at the Wisconsin Center for Education Research, in Madison. A summary of the study appeared in a recent edition of the center's newsletter.

Mr. Webb said he wasn't sure why the imp students scored better even in nonmath courses. One reason, he said, may be that the program puts more emphasis on writing than a traditional math curriculum does.

The researchers also found that a higher percentage of imp students took at least three years of math than students enrolled in the traditional algebra-geometry-calculus sequence. The finding held true for boys and girls and for major racial and ethnic groups.

Among African-American students, the study found, 79 percent of the imp students completed three years of college-preparatory math, compared with 51 percent of those in the traditional curriculum. For Latino students, the figures were 80 percent and 62 percent, respectively.

More IMP students--71 percent--also went on to complete an advanced math course, such as analytic geometry. That was true of only 52 percent of students in the traditional program.

The curriculum's authors were two mathematicians from San Francisco State University and two math educators affiliated with the Sonoma State University Academic Foundation. The National Science Foundation provided money for its dissemination and evaluation.

As of last year, more than 178 schools in 11 states were using the program, which meets college-admissions requirements. It also is aligned with the voluntary standards for math issued by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.

A prominent feature of the curriculum is its emphasis on ideas generated by students, said Janice A. Bussey, the national outreach coordinator for IMP, which is based in Emeryville, Calif.

"A lot of the powerful mathematical ideas come from the kids in their own words and in a way that makes sense to them," she said in a recent interview. "If it's totally abstract and foreign, students don't have any interest in learning math."

More information is available from IMP, 6400 Hollis St., #5, Emeryville, Calif. 94608; or by calling toll-free (888) 628-4467.

Exploring School Choice

A nonprofit research organization based in Milwaukee has received $200,000 to study ways to make private-school-choice programs accountable to parents, teachers, students, administrators, and taxpayers.

The study by the Public Policy Forum will focus on Milwaukee and Cleveland, the two cities with voucher programs that allow low-income families to send their children to private schools.

The researchers will interview administrators, parents, and teachers in five private schools and five public schools in each city to find out what information is vital to making informed decisions about schools of choice. The researchers will also talk with school board members, state legislators, business leaders, and others who have played important roles in the choice debate in the two cities.

The goal, said Emily Van Dunk, the project's director, is to come up with accountability guidelines that everyone can agree to "without unduly burdening private choice schools with a costly and complicated regulatory system."

The nonpartisan study, supported by grants from the Joyce Foundation of Chicago and the Fay McBeath Foundation of Milwaukee, is under the direction of a national advisory panel of social science researchers.

In the second phase of the study, a survey based on the interview data will test the acceptance of the accountability guidelines with the broader public.

--Millicent Lawton and Lynn Olson

Avoiding a Fight

The use of conflict-resolution and peer-mediation programs in schools has exploded in response to a perceived increase in physical violence among students. But do such programs actually work?

The answer, according to two brothers at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities who reviewed the research on the subject, is maybe.

"While the data presented are suggestive and promising, very few carefully controlled and thorough research studies have been conducted," conclude David W. Johnson, a professor of educational psychology, and Roger T. Johnson, a professor of education.

The brothers, best known for their research on cooperative learning, published their findings in the winter issue of the Review of Educational Research.

After examining more than 50 studies, the researchers found that students who have been trained in peer mediation or conflict resolution are more likely to resolve problems through negotiation and discussion than are students without such training.

Also, discipline problems and suspensions in participating schools tend to decrease. School personnel and parents become more positive about such programs over time, and students' self-esteem and attitudes toward school improve.

But, the authors caution, "the conclusions in most of the studies must be accepted very tentatively."

Many studies, they note, consist of testimonials by individuals who want the programs to continue. Other studies rely on self-reports by students who must recall past events.

Often, the studies lack clear definitions of such terms as "fight, discipline problem, referral, and suspension." And most studies rely on small, nonrepresentative samples of young people, without a control group to compare them with, the researchers conclude.

The wide diversity of programs also makes it hard to summarize their impact. While some programs may teach students communication skills, others may simply stress the importance of nonviolence.

"We were a little astonished that there wasn't more research in the area," Roger Johnson said in a recent interview. "I think we probably have 50 or 60 references at the end of the article, but I would guess that less than 20 of those studies are something more than descriptive."

Teaching students about conflict resolution is a "tough task," he said.

"I would urge people to think about this as something long-term that involves all of the kids in a school," he added, "and to gather their own data along the way, so they can validate what they're doing."

--Lynn Olson

Vol. 16, Issue 23, Page 28

Published in Print: March 5, 1997, as Research Notes
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