Draft From National Math Panel Covers Broad Scope of Topics

Curriculum, research, testing, teacher training and evaluation included.
By Sean Cavanagh — November 28, 2007 5 min read
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Students’ success in mathematics, and algebra specifically, hinges largely on their mastering a focused, clearly defined set of topics in that subject in early grades, the draft report of a federal panel concludes.

The long-awaited report of the National Mathematics Advisory Panel is still very much in flux. Members of the White House-commissioned group staged their 10th, and what was supposed to be their final, meeting in a hotel here Nov. 28, though they indicated that numerous revisions to the document are yet to come.

The panel spent most of a day debating and rewriting a 68-page draft of the report. The draft makes recommendations and findings on curricular content, learning processes, training and evaluation of teachers, instructional practices, assessment, and research as those topics apply to math in grades pre-K through 8.

“International and domestic comparisons show that American students have not been succeeding in the mathematical part of their education at anything like a leadership level,” the report says. “Particularly disturbing is the consistent finding that American students achieve in mathematics progressively more poorly at higher grades.”

Algebra’s Core

The 19-member panel has reviewed an estimated 18,000 research documents and reports as part of its work, which began in 2006. But its draft document also bemoans the paucity of available research in several areas of math—including instruction and teacher training. Government needs to do more, it says, to support research with “large enough samples of students, classrooms, teachers, and schools to identify reliable effects.”

The draft attempts to define the core features of a legitimate school algebra course as opposed to one, the panelists said, that presents watered-down math under that course title. Topics in an algebra course should include concepts such as symbols and expressions, functions, quadratic relations, and others, it notes.

The working report also spells out specific concepts in math that are too often neglected in pre-K through grade 8 math instruction generally, such as fractions, whole numbers, and particular elements of geometry and measurement.

“We don’t spend enough time on them and we don’t assess them,” panel member Camilla Persson Benbow, an educational psychologist at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., said of fractions. “[They’re] really not well mastered by schoolchildren.”

In arguing in behalf of a more focused curriculum in elementary and middle schools, the panel lists several “benchmarks for critical foundations” in prekindergarten through 8th grade math, leading to algebra. The goal is to develop fluency with fractions, whole numbers, and other topics.

Panel Expanded

The panel drew from a diverse assortment of documents, including the 2006 “Curriculum Focal Points,” published by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, as well as Singapore’s national standards and a number of U.S. state math standards.

The meeting’s tone was collegial, with many disagreements centering on whether enough extensive research supported particular recommendations and language in the report. At the same time, the draft document also touches on the sources of recent prominent debates in K-12 math.

For instance, the draft report says certain high-quality computer software in math “can facilitate student achievement” and build student problem-solving skills. But it also finds that a review of research—most of it dated—indicates that calculators have shown “limited to no impact on calculation skills, problem-solving competencies, or conceptual development.”

President Bush appointed members of the National Mathematics Advisory Panel in May 2006. He charged its members—who include mathematicians, cognitive psychologists, and those with K-12 teaching experience—to identify promising and effective instructional strategies in mathematics, particularly when it comes to preparing students for algebra, a subject typically taught in 8th or 9th grade.

Originally the panel had 17 members, but it now includes 19 individuals, in addition to five ex-officio members from the federal government. One of the original panelists, Nancy Ichinaga, a former California principal, resigned from the panel, and three others have joined the group: Douglas H. Clements, a professor of early-childhood, mathematics, and computer education at the University of Buffalo, State University of New York; Susan E. Embreston, a professor of psychology at the Georgia Institute of Technology; and Bert Fristedt, a distinguished teacher of mathematics at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities.

The panel is supposed to deliver a final report to the White House by Feb. 28. Larry R. Faulkner, the chairman of the panel and a former president of the University of Texas at Austin, said White House officials have indicated they will give the panel more time, if necessary, though he hopes to meet the original deadline. In order to accomplish that, and allow for revisions and printing of the document, the panel would probably have to make final revisions by Dec. 15.

Mr. Faulkner said it was possible that the panel could have one more meeting or simply circulate final changes to the document by e-mail in the weeks ahead.

Bush administration officials have compared the math panel’s mission to that of the National Reading Panel, an expert group that produced recommendations on reading practices that have had a broad impact on federal policy in that subject—most notably in the awarding of grants through the federal Reading First program. Specifically, administration officials have said the math panel’s advice could guide Math Now, a federal grant program approved by Congress this year, which has not yet been funded.

Policy Guidance

U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, who addressed the panel at the Nov. 28 session, said she believed the group’s report would not only help guide policies within the U.S. Department of Education, but also across other federal agencies that sponsor math programs and research, such as the National Science Foundation and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

The secretary noted that a panel she chaired, the Academic Competitiveness Council, found in a report this year that while the federal government spends about $3 billion a year on math and science education programs, few of those have proved effective through research.

“When we know what works, when we know what’s [stated] in research, it is our responsibility to align our resources with those effective practices,” Ms. Spellings said in an interview outside the meeting. “I would expect that [other agencies] would honor this work.”

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A version of this article appeared in the December 05, 2007 edition of Education Week as National Math Panel Unveils Draft Report


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