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Federal Study Tests Early-Grade Math Programs

Ongoing Federal Research Shows an Edge for Some Widely Used Curricula
By Sarah D. Sparks — November 04, 2010 3 min read
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Two years into the nation’s largest experimental evaluation of commercial mathematics programs for early elementary school, the Institute of Education Sciences has found some curricula have an advantage over others, but so far there has been no decisive win in the ongoing battle over the best way to teach math.

Last week, the IES, the U.S. Department of Education’s research arm, released its second of three reports studying the practices and effectiveness—including differences in teacher training, instructional approaches, materials, and content covered—of four of the most popular commercial curricula for teaching math in the early grades.

The programs are: Investigations in Number, Data, and Space and Scott Foresman-Addison Wesley Mathematics, both published by the New York City-based Pearson Scott Foresman; Boston-based Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s Math Expressions; and Saxon Math, published by the Austin, Texas-based Harcourt Achieve.

Researchers from the Princeton, N.J.-based Mathematica Policy Research randomly assigned 110 schools in 12 districts—eight more districts than in the first study—to use one of the four curricula with their 1st and 2nd graders. At the end of each year, all students took the math test developed for the IES’ Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, Kindergarten Class of 1998-99, which includes both multiple-choice and open-ended questions in math concepts, procedures, and problem-solving.

Need to ‘Choose Wisely’

Researchers found that in 1st grade, students who used Math Expressions performed .11 standard deviations higher on the test than did students using Investigations or the Scott Foresman-Addison Wesley program—but not markedly different from students using the Saxon program. In 2nd grade, Math Expressions and Saxon students outperformed Scott Foresman-Addison Wesley students by .12 and .17 standard deviations, respectively, but did not perform significantly better than the students using the Investigations program. To put those findings in perspective, a student in the longitudinal study improved in math by about 1.7 standard deviations from 1st to 2nd grade, on average, so students using a better curriculum made nearly a month of additional progress.

“This is very strong evidence, and choosing your curriculum wisely seems to really matter in these early grades,” said Roberto Agodini, the head of the study team at Mathematica.

J. Michael Shaughnessy, the president of the Reston, Va.-based National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, said details in the study on the content of the curricula and the ways in which the programs were carried out may show more about what works in math education than the overall achievement differences between them.

For instance, while programs covered similar topics and shared some instructional practices, differences stood out in the way different curricula played out in classrooms. For example, Mr. Shaughnesy noted that Saxon teachers spent on average an hour more class time on math instruction each week than did teachers using other curricula. Similarly, Math Expressions provided more professional development on both math content and instruction than did other curricula.

“It’s getting under the skin of what’s really going on there,” Mr. Shaughnessy said.

‘Math Wars’ Unresolved

The study will not, however, give a clear win to either those who believe math should be explicit and teacher-directed or those who favor student-centered learning—a more “constructivist” approach in which students forge conceptual understanding through group work, hands-on projects, or discussions with other students.

“We’ve been struggling with how to define these curricula,” Mr. Agodini said. “Each of the curricula we study blends a teacher-directed approach and a student-centered approach; they just weight them differently.”

The Investigations curriculum is arguably the most student-centered program, Mr. Agodini said; it uses a constructivist approach with lessons that focus on students’ conceptual understanding rather than just problem-solving. By contrast, Saxon Math emphasizes the most daily practice at solving problems and explicit instruction from the teacher. Math Expressions blends teacher-directed instruction on math procedures with student discussions of math concepts in the real world, while Scott Foresman-Addison Wesley Mathematics teaches basic math skills using basal lessons chosen by each teacher, with help from the publisher, in response to the needs of his or her students.

The final report from the study is due next year.

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A version of this article appeared in the November 10, 2010 edition of Education Week as Early-Grade Math Programs Go Head-to-Head in Study

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