Feds Support New Centers to Study Math, and How to Improve Struggling Schools

By Sean Cavanagh — October 13, 2009 2 min read

The main research arm of the U.S. Department of Education is funding the creation of three new centers, two of them focused on math curriculum and instruction, the third of which will examine how to “scale up” effective schools and revamp low-performing ones.

It’s probably no accident that those topics are getting a lot of attention from policymakers today, as part of the effort to craft common standards and revamp struggling schools. The federal Institute of Education Sciences invited applicants to apply through a competition to be selected to run the centers, and bids were due earlier this month.

One center would seek to examine what kinds of standards and assessments produce the best academic results for children. Currently, standards and test frameworks are usually developed by expert consensus, IES notes in its request for applications. Yet there’s “little empirical basis” to make those decisions, it says.

"[W]hich early skills are most predictive of those mathematics skills that are currently assessed in upper elementary grades, middle school, or high school? " the IES says. “What do skills that are currently assessed in elementary, middle, and high school predict in terms of later mathematics achievement? Although there is an emerging consensus among experts as to the content and skills that should be taught and assessed to prepare children for algebra, the empirical evidence to support the predictive validity of these skills is quite limited.”

The IES currently funds 13 research and development centers, which probe aspects of education policy ranging from college access to pay incentives for teachers and other school employees to the use of technology. Two additional centers focus on special education.

The second newly proposed math center would examine strategies to improve student achievement through cognition—basically the study of how people think and learn—and redesign math curriculum based on that research. The agency says it is not interested in supporting a project that results in a redesigned math curriculum that is “entirely teacher-centered” or “entirely teacher-directed,” a reference to a common ideological feud in the so-called math wars. (And an issue that some experts, like those who served on the National Mathematics Advisory Panel, say is overblown.)

The third center would seek to identify “policies, programs and practices” in schools that have strong records of improving performance in “underachieving populations,” and examiend ways to scale up those strategies. As it now stands, many practices that are touted as effective have not been rigorously studied, says IES, echoing a common refrain among ed policymakers. As a result, districts and schools are forced to make decisions “on the basis of little empirical evidence,” the agency says.

How likely are these centers to contribute to the ongoing debates and discussions about national standards and overhauling poor-performing schools?

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.