School & District Management

Math and Science Get Own Research Center

By Michelle Galley — September 03, 2003 4 min read
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The federal government is trying to do for math and science what it has done for reading: sponsor a systematic program of research that will drive improvements in curriculum and instruction, particularly for struggling students.

The new program housed at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, which administers much of the experimental research into reading disabilities and has helped shape policy on reading instruction, will sponsor studies of how children learn math and science, as well as the origins and treatment of specific math-learning disabilities.

While such studies have been financed through the NICHD in the past, the importance of that research has been elevated by the formation of a department devoted exclusively to the endeavor.

The NICHD, in conjunction with the Department of Education’s office of special education and rehabilitative services, next month plans to announce the recipients of a new set of mathematics grants. Those awards could total as much as $18 million over three to five years, according to Daniel Berch, the director of the math and science program and a former senior researcher at the Education Department.

Undue Influence Eschewed

While some math and science educators are hopeful the research could help improve curriculum and instruction, they caution that the federal undertaking should not unduly influence content and pedagogy.

Findings from NICHD studies in reading, for example, have fueled a back-to-basics approach to reading instruction in recent years, emphasizing phonics and other early- reading skills. That controversial movement has led to policies requiring explicit and systematic reading instruction and a growing demand for commercial reading programs that incorporate such lessons. Currently, only a few products seem to have the research-based results that satisfy federal policy.

Math and science educators don’t want to find themselves in a similar situation.

Translating the research findings into materials that can be used in the classroom should be left to educators, said Rodger Bybee, the director of the Biological Sciences Curriculum Study, a nonprofit organization based in Colorado Springs, Colo.

“What we don’t need,” he said, “is for someone to say, ‘Here are these great results, and people should implement these in school programs.’ ”

In science, the research will look at “how children learn to think scientifically,” Mr. Berch said. That includes examining any preconceived ideas or misconceptions they may have about how the world works.

“We need to start with where these children are at,” he said. “What do they think about germs and transmission of disease? Is the world round or flat?”

The work in mathematics will be much more involved, according to Mr. Berch.

Some of those studies will examine brain-imaging to determine what part of the brain is engaged in mathematical thinking. Other factors, such as gender, socioeconomic status, and cultural differences, will also be studied to determine how they influence the way children learn math.

In addition, atypical math-learning curves will be explored under the new program.

Because mathematics and reading “seem to be crucial components of learning for adequate later learning in school and successful adaptation to society,” Mr. Berch said, the NICHD is focusing on disabilities in those subjects as opposed to others.

‘A Very Serious Problem’

Although specific “math learning disabilities” have been diagnosed for years, more research needs to be done to define such a disability, determine its origins, figure out how to prevent it, and clarify the diagnostic procedure, he said.

A lot of work has been done to understand and treat children with learning disabilities in reading, said Lynn Fuchs, a special education researcher at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn. Much less emphasis has been placed on mathematics, she said.

The new NICHD program, Ms. Fuchs said, “has the capacity to begin a systematic program of research dedicated to a very serious problem in mathematics.”

Clearly defining and accurately diagnosing disabilities in learning math will also prevent children who are merely having trouble learning the subject from being misdiagnosed with disabilities, Ms. Fuchs added.

Others worry about the dangers of labeling children as mathematically disabled.

Such labeling can directly affect their futures, said Johnny Lott, the president of the Reston, Va.-based National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.

“Sometimes a school system will look at the label and say, ‘You can’t do this,’” he said. “The label can follow them through their whole school career.”

Recent research, according to Mr. Lott, has shown that students who are placed in lower-level reading groups in the early grades have less chance of being placed in a higher-level mathematics group later in school. “That is scary,” he said. “We don’t want to do that to kids.”

The goal of studying math learning disabilities is not to bring every child to the same high level of achievement, said Douglas Carnine, the director of the National Center to Improve the Tools of Educators, a research center at the University of Oregon, in Eugene, that devises assessments for students with disabilities. But, he said, “everyone needs to be at a higher level than they are now.”

Another goal of the new venture is to generate research that reduces tolerance for poor math achievement.

“Now, people don’t mind saying, ‘I’m not good at math,’ and not think anything about it,” Mr. Carnine said. “You will seldom see people at a party saying, ‘I can’t read,’ as if that is OK.”

Associate Editor Kathleen Kennedy Manzo contributed to this report.

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