School & District Management

Math Education Panel Issues Long-Range Plan for Action

By David J. Hoff — April 30, 2003 3 min read
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A blue-ribbon panel of mathematics education researchers released a long-range plan last week that it says will answer the thorny questions of how best to teach math.

Read the report, “Mathematical Proficiency for All Students: Toward a Strategic Research and Development Program in Mathematics Education,” from RAND. (Requires Adobe’s Acrobat Reader.)

To begin with, the report says, researchers need to find ways to integrate algebraic concepts throughout the K-12 curriculum, and they must figure out the best ways to teach the discipline to current and future teachers so they can apply what they learn in their classrooms.

The RAND Corp., a Santa Monica, Calif.-based think tank, issued the federally financed report containing the recommendations of 18 mathematicians and math educators.

Discussion drafts were circulated more than a year ago. The panel’s work played a role in shaping the $120 million math education research agenda that the Bush administration recently launched as part of a five-year effort to raise math and science achievement, according to the top research official at the U.S. Department of Education. (“Ed. Dept. Proposes $120 Million Math Agenda,” Feb. 12, 2003.)

For example, the department is now accepting applications for projects that identify effective ways to prepare math teachers for middle schools, said Grover J. “Russ” Whitehurst, the director of the department’s new Institute of Education Sciences. The department is calling for other proposals on how to teach portions of algebra in all math courses more effectively, he added. The winners of the grant competition should be named by this summer.

“There’s a lot of overlap” between the RAND recommendations and the department’s agenda, Mr. Whitehurst said in an interview.

“Their thinking and recommendations are things that I benefited from early on,” he said.

The RAND math report is a companion to a separate project by the think tank that addresses the teaching of reading comprehension.

Promoting Algebra

Researchers should unlock the keys to teaching algebra, the new report says, because the subject “is foundational in all areas of mathematics.” It includes the tools for solving problems, making generalizations and proving them, and crafting formulas that describe mathematical problems.

Most research on algebra has focused on high school classrooms because that’s where the topic is most often taught, the report says.

Because some research suggests that young students can learn elementary concepts of algebra as part of arithmetic and other classes, the report adds, researchers need to investigate “what happens when it is integrated with other subjects.”

On teacher development, the report suggests that teachers need a distinctive set of math skills and knowledge that teacher-preparation programs should give them. Teachers, for example, should be able to identify not only whether a student gets the right answer, but also whether the procedures used to arrive at the answer were correct.

The report also calls for researchers to investigate the best ways for teachers to teach problem-solving skills in all math subjects so children can take those skills and apply them in a variety of mathematical situations.

Mr. Whitehurst said that the RAND report laid out research areas that the Education Department is pursuing, but he added that the department might pursue some other areas, too.

For instance, he said, the department might seek research on how to design a better curriculum so that teachers without solid mathematics backgrounds can teach the subject effectively. The research is needed, he said, because so few teachers—particularly those working in poor communities—have the mathematical knowledge that education policymakers would like them to have.

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