The Department of Education wants to spend $120 million on research into mathematics education as the first step in its five-year effort to improve the quality of math and science instruction and raise student achievement in those subjects.
Speaking here last week at what the department billed as a one-day “summit” to launch the project, agency officials said the research agenda for math education would investigate the best methods and curriculum for teaching the subject and the best ways of improving teachers’ knowledge of the field.
“The place to start is with more rigorous curriculum and high-quality teachers,” Secretary of Education Rod Paige told the invitation-only group of math education advocates, business leaders, and government officials at the Feb. 6 event.
Research identifying what has to happen to write challenging curricula and to prepare the teachers who will deliver it will be the early focus of the undertaking.
“The research in math is really in its infancy,” Grover J. “Russ” Whitehurst, the director of the department’s new Institute of Education Sciences, said in his speech. “What it provides in policy and practice is educated guesses.”
The Bush administration has been planning its math education project since late last year. It has already made a $400,000 grant to advocates of basic-skills instruction for a project that will define what teachers ought to know before they enter the classroom. (“Bush to Push for Math and Science Upgrade,” Nov. 20, 2002.)
Later, the administration intends to start a similar venture to explore the curriculum and teacher quality in science, officials at the math event said.
In addition to producing new research, the math and science initiatives will work to gain public support for the overall goal of raising student achievement.
At last week’s math gathering, one of the analysts already at work on the Education Department’s teacher education grant said his research suggests U.S. students aren’t learning the rudimentary skills they need to excel in upper-level math.
“Students lost ground in most computation skills in the 1990s,” said Tom Loveless, the director of the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank. For example, half of 8th graders enter high school unable to compute with fractions, a key skill needed for algebra, said Mr. Loveless, who based his research on an analysis of the National Assessment of Educational Progress.
“These basic skills are necessary to advance in mathematics,” he added. “Basic skills should be a floor, not a ceiling.”
But the best way to teach those basic skills remains unclear, Mr. Whitehurst said in his presentation.
Some research, Mr. Whitehurst said, suggests that students can learn mathematics skills through so-called discovery learning, in which they use “manipulatives” or draw pictures to portray such tasks as addition or subtraction. But other research says that the more teachers guide students in hands-on instruction, the better students can learn, he added.
For discovery learning, “there is a time and a place,” he said. “But it is not every day.”
Advocates of programs that incorporate discovery learning said the balance in Mr. Whitehurst’s summary of the research heartened them.
Prior to the meeting, some had worried that the math initiative would be biased toward basic skills, and might eventually lead to federal policies that favored that approach. (“Federal Influence Over Curriculum Exhibits Growth,” Feb. 5, 2003.)
“He raised legitimate questions,” Johnny Lott, the president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, a 100,000-member professional organization, said of Mr. Whitehurst. “That was very encouraging.”
In Bush Budget
Mr. Whitehurst’s institute—the Education Department’s research arm—would receive $25 million for the math education agenda under the fiscal 2004 budget that President Bush submitted to Congress last week, according to David Thomas, a department spokesman.
The rest of the funding would come from the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health. Congress still must appropriate the money.
Education Department officials will convene a meeting March 13 to discuss the next steps in the math education agenda.
A video of the Feb. 6 event was to be posted by late last week at www.connectlive.com/events/deptedu.