NRC Urges Multiple Studies For Math Curricula

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At least four different types of studies need to be conducted on a mathematics curriculum before it can be deemed effective, asserts a report released last week by the National Research Council.

That conclusion was reached by a team of researchers who for two years studied the body of research that has been done on 19 math curricula, 13 of which were produced with the support of the National Science Foundation, and six of which were published by commercial ventures.

The report outlines what is needed to have "a set of high-quality and valid studies," said Jere Confrey, the chairwoman of the review committee for the NRC, an arm of the congressionally chartered National Academies of Science.

Jere Confrey

"We have set a really high bar for what needs to happen," said Ms. Confrey. The panel did so, she said, because "it is essential" that states and districts choosing curricular materials can have confidence in them.

So far, no single curriculum has met the committee’s goal of using four different methodologies to prove its worth, she said.

Of the evaluations already performed, the report says that "the number of studies in the commercial category was far smaller than the number of studies on the NSF-supported materials."

Overall, the report supports the NSF-designed curricula, according to Diane Resek, a professor of mathematics at San Francisco State University. "Often, the NSF curricula have been attacked as unproven, but that seems to be discounted" in the new report, said Ms. Resek, whose work focuses on K-12 education.

The timing of the report is especially significant because the No Child Left Behind Act includes a provision requiring that educational materials be proved effective according to "scientifically based research." But there was no clear definition in the law for what that research should entail, Ms. Confrey said.

As a result, the research team from the NRC set out to define the term "scientifically established effective" for existing math curricula, and concluded that using four specific methodologies fulfills that definition. The researchers did not address other subjects in the curriculum.

The committee recommended that content analyses focusing on such matters as accuracy, topic coverage, and the progression of math lessons be performed on each program.

Legal, Logistical Barriers

In addition, comparative studies that weigh two programs of high quality against each other should be carried out, the report says.

"A comparative study could be meaningless without a content analysis," Ms. Confrey said, if the study compares two programs that are equally poor in quality.

Case studies showing how the materials are used in classrooms are also essential, according to the report. "It could be a beautiful curriculum, but not if teachers can’t implement it," said Ms. Confrey, an education professor at Washington University in St. Louis.

Finally, studies that look at other evaluations of the curriculum are also required to judge the quality of materials.

Obtaining that much research is not easy, said Ms. Resek of San Francisco State.

For example, she said, when she set out to study students’ math performance after they entered college, she had to rely on the students to report their grades to her because legally she could not have access to them from their K-12 schools or colleges. "Do you trust people self- reporting grades?" she said.

Performing the amount of research called for in the NRC report is logistically difficult, said Traci Higgins, a senior research and development specialist for TERC,a nonprofit research and development organization based in Cambridge, Mass. Ms. Higgins also oversees much of the research conducted on Investigations, an NSF-supported math curriculum for the elementary level. a nonprofit research and development organization based in Cambridge, Mass. Ms. Higgins also oversees much of the research conducted on Investigations, an NSF-supported math curriculum for the elementary level.

"I think it would be wonderful" if all the research were performed, she said. "But there are some difficulties in making that a reality, and one of them is [a lack of] funding and resources to do that kind of work."

Sending a researcher into schools to see how a curriculum is being implemented is expensive. And timing the visits is tricky because districts phase in new materials over a period of years.

Ms. Higgins said she hoped that "the biggest outcome for this is that there will be more resources and more attention paid."

Vol. 23, Issue 38, Page 14

Published in Print: May 26, 2004, as NRC Urges Multiple Studies For Math Curricula
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