Mathematics

Ed. Dept. To Release List Of Recommended Math Programs

By Debra Viadero — October 06, 1999 6 min read
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The U.S. Department of Education is set this week to confer its seal of approval on 10 programs for teaching mathematics to students in kindergarten through 12th grade.

For More Information
“Exemplary and Promising Mathematics Programs” is scheduled to be available online at www.enc.org/. Print copies are also available by calling (877) 4ED-PUBS.

The list, scheduled to be unveiled Oct. 6 during a Tampa, Fla., education conference, represents a first step in what federal officials hope will be a continuing effort to review and recommend curricular programs that work.

But, by singling out a handful of “exemplary” and “promising” math programs, the department is also wading deeper than ever into a debate that is dividing parents and educators around the country.

By design, every program on the list reflects the pedagogical approaches embedded in the voluntary standards written a decade ago by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.

Once almost universally applauded, those guidelines have come under heavy attack in recent years from proponents of more traditional methods of teaching math.

“This is an abomination,” Wayne Bishop, a mathematician at California State University-Los Angeles, said of the new list. “It has no business being debated by the federal government or anyone else.”

Fine Line

More than two years in the making, the recommendations are drawn from national panels of teachers, mathematicians, program evaluators, and scientists.

Mathematics Programs
These are the math programs recommended for “exemplary’’ status by the U.S. Department of Education:
  • College Preparatory Mathematics Program, a four-year secondary school program
  • Connected Mathematics, designed for students in grades 6-8
  • Core-Plus Mathematics Project, an integrated high school program
  • Interactive Mathematics Program, an integrated, problem-based high school curriculum
  • Pact Algebra, a full-year, technology-based course for students in grades 7-12
Programs recommended for “promising’’ status:
  • Everyday Mathematics, a program for grades K-6
  • Mathland, also for grades K-6
  • Middle School Mathematics Through Application Project
  • Number Power, a supplemental program for grades K-6
  • University of Chicago School Mathematics Project, a six-course curriculum for grades 7-12
SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education

Federal law has long prohibited the Education Department from exercising any control over curricula. But the department, almost since its inception, has also had in place systems for reviewing and recommending effective school programs. And, until its demise in 1996, the department’s National Diffusion Network helped disseminate programs that made the cut in a wide range of disciplines.

Mandated by Congress in 1994, the new evaluation system is meant to be an improved version of the old network. The NDN, in its last few years, was criticized for endorsing narrowly focused programs that often did not add up to broad-scale change in the schools where they were used.

Unlike their predecessors, the new panels focus on particular subject areas, such as math or technology, and teachers are actively involved in the reviews.

But the old network’s more wide-ranging approach also helped it steer clear of some pedagogical debates.

The network could, for example, promote phonics-based reading programs alongside whole-language approaches.

What neither system does, however, is require schools to use the recommended programs or offer special funding to induce educators to use them.

“If a district has a different set of criteria they like to use, they may turn elsewhere,” said Linda P. Rosen, director of America Counts, an initiative by the Education Department to improve math education. “If you look at Consumer Reports, not everyone buys the same items on the list because they’re looking for different qualities.”

The decision to choose materials that reflect the newer math approaches came from the expert panel itself.

Wayne Bishop

Among its 17 members were several from organizations, such as the NCTM and the National Science Foundation, that had a hand in creating or promoting the national math standards. And in 1997, when the panels were formed, many states were looking to those standards as they remodeled their own teaching guidelines.

Under the process the panel devised, programs looking for approval were reviewed at least twice before even reaching the expert panel. Field reviewers--most of whom were teachers--evaluated the programs for their educational significance. Statisticians and psychometricians also screened submissions to determine whether program developers had the data to back up their claims of success.

The 10 programs that made the final cut were drawn from an original list of 61.

“I think it’s good news that there really are some exemplary programs that live up to rigorous review and a high set of standards,” said Steven Leinwand, a consultant for the Connecticut education department and a former NCTM president. “There’s no doubt in my mind that students learning any of these materials would benefit academically.”

Making the List

To earn an “exemplary” designation, programs must provide convincing evidence of their effectiveness in multiple schools or districts and with a range of student populations. Most of the programs on the department’s list are designed for high schools and middle schools. And most--but not all--combine subjects such as algebra, trigonometry, and geometry rather than teaching them as separate courses.

Of the five programs rated exemplary, one--Connected Mathematics, developed at Michigan State University--was recently rejected for adoption in California, the state at the vanguard of the “math wars.” Some of the mathematicians there who reviewed that middle school program complained that it contained errors and gave short shrift to basic concepts, such as the division of fractions, according to Richard Askey, a University of Wisconsin-Madison mathematician who sat on the state panel and who also took part in the federal review process.

The program, however, was at the top of a short list of recommended programs published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science last year.

Emphasis on Concepts

The other four “exemplary” programs are: the College- Preparatory Mathematics Program, the Core-Plus Mathematics Project, the Interactive Mathematics Program, and Pact Algebra.

Most of the five programs the panel deemed “promising” are designed for elementary and middle schools.

Like the national standards, they emphasize helping students acquire a deeper understanding of mathematical concepts, rather than concentrate on extensive practice in basic computation skills.

The most controversial program on that list, Mathland, also came under fire in California. Its critics complain that it fails to explicitly teach standard procedures for addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division.

In fact, of all the programs cited by the federal panel, only one--the University of Chicago School Mathematics Project--also has a spot on California’s list of recommended textbooks, though in a modified form.

Most of the programs in both categories include a professional-development component for teachers.

“It doesn’t matter how strong you are in content, when you get a new program you have to learn to think a certain way,” said panel member Genevieve Knight, a scholar-in-residence at Pennsylvania State University’s Capital College campus, near Harrisburg.

The same panel of mathematicians, scientists, and teachers will make similar recommendations for science programs later this year. And other panels, using similar methods, are reviewing curricular programs in technology; gender equity; and safe, disciplined, and drug-free schools.

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