Study Finds Edge for Certain Early-Math Programs

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Two programs for teaching mathematics in the early grades­—Math Expressions and Saxon Math—emerge as clear winners in a large-scale federal study that pits four popular math curricula against one another.

Involving 1,309 1st graders in 39 elementary schools, the four-state study is thought to be the largest to experimentally test out some of the nation’s most widely used commercial math programs. The results were posted online this evening by the Institute of Education Sciences, the federal research agency that commissioned the study, and Mathematica Policy Research Inc. of Princeton, N.J., the independent research group that is heading it up.

The study is an effort to bring hard evidence to bear in the “math wars”—a debate over teaching methods that has largely gone on without much scientific proof of effectiveness.

Effect of Math Programs on Students’ Scores

A study compared test scores of students taught using four math curricula used in the early grades.

To shed some light on the subject, researchers focused on K-2 programs that represent a range of teaching methods, from scripted programs that explicitly teach children ways to solve problems to approaches that encourage students to reason and explore mathematics on their own.

The Saxon Math program, which is now published by Harcourt Achieve in Austin, Texas, is more representative of the former approach, according to Mathematica, while Math Expressions, a curriculum marketed by the Boston-based Houghton Mifflin Co., is more of a blend of teacher-directed and student-centered instruction. According to Mathematica’s press release, students in Math Expressions “question and discuss math but are explicitly taught effective procedures.”

Randomized Trial

Of the other two curricular programs in the study, Investigations in Number, Data, and Space, published by Pearson Scott Foresman, is the more student-focused. The researchers describe the last program—Scott Foresman-Addison Wesley Mathematics—as a basic-skills curriculum that combines teacher-led instruction with a variety of different materials and teaching strategies.

Researchers randomly assigned each of the programs to 10 different schools for use over the 2006-07 school year, and teachers reported later on that the assigned curricula served as the backbone of their math instruction that year.

To determine how much math students learned, the researchers used a nationally normed math exam that was developed for the federal government’s Early Childhood Longitudinal Study.

At the end of 1st grade, the investigators found, children in the classrooms using the Saxon and the Math Expressions curricula scored 9 to 12 percentile points higher on those tests than their counterparts in the other classrooms.

While teachers in each of the four curricular groups received similar amounts of training on using the programs, the teachers in the Saxon Math group reported spending an average of an hour more each week teaching math.

Researchers said the report is the first of three on the study, which is ongoing. Seventy-one more schools joined the study in the 2007-08 academic year and researchers plan to continue to analyze results on students’ mathematical progress through the 2008-09 school year.

Vol. 28, Issue 23

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An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated the amount of time that the teachers in the Saxon Math group reported spending teaching math. They spent an average of an hour more each week.

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