Mathematics

Administration Hopes to Begin Grant Cycle at Math Panel’s Midpoint

By Sean Cavanagh — June 06, 2006 3 min read
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Members of a newly formed panel on mathematics are only beginning their work, but Bush administration officials are already signaling that they believe the advisory group could begin shaping federal policy very soon.

The panel’s 17 members convened here for the first time May 22, an event that was devoted largely to setting the broad outlines for how they will go about their mission.

Larry R. Faulkner

President Bush, who formed the National Mathematics Advisory Panel in April, has charged it with identifying research and “evidence based” strategies for successful math instruction, particularly related to preparing students to take algebra and higher-level math.

The panel is expected to submit a preliminary report to the president by next Jan. 31 and final recommendations by Feb. 28, 2008. At the panel’s inaugural meeting, Thomas W. Luce III, the assistant secretary for planning, evaluation, and policy development in the U.S. Department of Education, said the administration, rather than waiting for the final report, could use the preliminary document to “start guiding grant distribution” under its proposal for making awards for math instruction.

The president, in his fiscal 2007 budget proposal, has called for the creation of “Math Now,” a $250 million program to distribute grants to improve teaching and learning in that subject, based on proven strategies—some of which could be identified by the panel. Congress would have to approve that budget request. Mr. Bush will leave office in January 2009.

Mr. Luce said that while he “absolutely” believes the panel’s interim recommendations could shape the awarding of grants, he was basing that conclusion on the assumption that its members could reach consensus by then.

“We don’t want to rush the panel,” he said after the meeting.

Four Areas of Study

The panelists, who met at the offices of the congressionally chartered National Academies, spent much of the first meeting reviewing the language of the president’s executive order, and setting guidelines on how they should conduct their work.

Several members said that if part of their duty was to determine how to prepare students for Algebra 1 and higher-level math, they should identify the central concepts that any Algebra 1 course should cover.

“Perhaps we need to decide what algebra is,” said panelist Vern Williams, a math teacher at Longfellow Middle School, in Falls Church, Va. Too many of the classes bearing that title today, he added, do not challenge students, and amount only to “something that is called algebra.”

At the same time, another panelist, Deborah Loewenberg Ball, a professor of education at Michigan State University, cautioned against the group’s becoming a “curriculum committee” offering overly prescriptive advice on courses and their content.

Chairman Larry R. Faulkner, the president emeritus of the University of Texas at Austin, suggested that it study four main areas of math education: conceptual knowledge and skills, learning processes, instructional practices, and efforts to improve teaching.

Two panelists, Tom Loveless and Wilfried Schmid, both suggested that the panel’s mission could include a review of the math tests given under the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the influential federal program that tests samplings of students in many subject areas.

Mr. Schmid is a professor of mathematics at Harvard University. Mr. Loveless, a senior scholar at the Brookings Institution in Washington, has written that NAEP math content is too easy and doesn’t sufficiently test students’ basic arithmetic skills. (“Study Finds NAEP Math Questions ‘Extraordinarily Easy,’” Nov. 24, 2004.)

Charles E. Smith, the executive director of the National Assessment Governing Board, which sets policy for NAEP, had not heard of the panelists’ comments, but he said he was not surprised by their interest in the assessment, given its influence on states and schools nationwide.

The board, he noted, routinely seeks input from the research community and others in designing its tests. “The process we use is quite inclusive,” he said.

Mr. Faulkner did not discount having the panel address the NAEP issue. But he also said he wanted the group to remain “highly disciplined” in sticking to its mission and offering conclusions that could help guide federal math policy.

“We need to be very hard-nosed,” Mr. Faulkner said. “There’s a lot riding on this.” If the panel produces a sound report, he predicted, “a lot of dollars will be spent” based on its advice.

A version of this article appeared in the June 07, 2006 edition of Education Week as Administration Hopes to Begin Grant Cycle at Math Panel’s Midpoint

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