Reading & Literacy

Grants Modeled on Reading First Aim to Bolster K-8 Math Teaching

By Sean Cavanagh — September 20, 2007 7 min read
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A year and a half ago, President Bush proposed creating a new federal mathematics effort that would offer millions of dollars in grants to school districts to adopt proven strategies for improving classroom instruction in that subject.

Last month, federal lawmakers gave the president what he was looking for—with some differences.

Administration officials had pictured the new program, called Math Now, as being modeled on Reading First, the $1 billion-ayear federal effort that provides money for research-based improvements in reading instruction in the early grades.

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But in the end, Congress’ vision differed. Math Now—included as part of a broader piece of legislation to support math and science education and research known as the America COMPETES Act, which Mr. Bush signed into law Aug. 9—is authorized to receive less than half the amount the administration had wanted: $95 million a year, not $250 million.

As part of the same law, Congress also created a separate grant program aimed at promoting research-based math improvements in high schools. That proposal is also authorized to receive $95 million a year, despite the administration’s preference that lawmakers focus more attention on elementary and middle school math, through Math Now.

The Math Now program also includes language to guard against conflicts of interest in the awarding of math grants, the type of safeguard that critics say has been lacking in the administration’s oversight of Reading First.

Like Reading First, the math program requires the federal Department of Education to make competitive grants available to states, which can then make awards to school districts. States are eligible for grants of up to three years in duration; while priority will go to statewide projects targeting students in grades 4-8, districts can use the money for students in kindergarten through 9th grade.

Experimenting With Exams

Districts will be able to spend the money on a relatively broad range of purposes, such as adopting new instructional materials; implementing new tests, including smallscale exams aimed at guiding instruction, known as formative and diagnostic assessments; providing remedial coursework to struggling students; expanding professional development for teachers; and hiring of math coaches.

The federal aid could prove important to districts that want to improve the math achievement of struggling students but that lack the resources to do it, said Michelle A. King, the math director for the 10,000-student Coppell, Texas, school district north of Dallas.

Ms. King was especially pleased that districts will be allowed to use the money to improve the math-content knowledge of teachers, administrators, and other staff members, a form of professional development that she believes is crucial to helping educators explain core math concepts to struggling students.

“Teachers need to have a deeper understanding of math content, so that they can provide students with a rich experience in math,” said Ms. King, who also serves on the board of the Texas Association of Math Supervisors, a professional group. Teachers with that in-depth skill, she said, have a “greater repertoire” of lessons and activities for helping students.

Francis M. “Skip” Fennell, the president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, said districts would benefit from being able to use the federal aid for diagnostic and formative assessments, strategies that his 100,000-member organization has promoted in recent years.

Diagnostic assessments aim to determine the nature of individual students’ persistent learning problems and help remedy them.Teachers typically use formative assessments during the middle of a class or topic to gauge whether students are grasping the material and then adjust accordingly, as opposed to focusing attention on tests at the end of a course or school year.

“I see that as very realistic, in terms of helping teachers intervene” with struggling students, Mr. Fennell said of the diagnostic and formative methods. “If I’m a classroom teacher, I’m able to use questions and recognize problems early.”

The NCTM has long played an influential role in the creation of states’ academic standards in math—their basic guidelines for what students should know in that subject at each grade level. The Reston, Va.-based organization actively consulted with congressional staff members during the drafting of the Math Now legislation, Mr. Fennell said.

Yet a former Capitol Hill staff member who played a key role in the creation of the Reading First program, Robert W. Sweet Jr., said the list of activities eligible for funding under Math Now was far too broad and provided little assurance that the money would be used effectively.

Under Reading First, states and districts are required to use money for “scientifically based reading instruction.” Districts receiving grants are expected to emphasize five components of reading instruction, including phonics, vocabulary, and text comprehension. Critics of Reading First have complained those guidelines are overly restrictive, and resulted in federal favoritism toward a relatively narrow set of reading strategies.

Money for Math

Math Now is expected to provide federal grants to elementary and middle schools seeking to improve math instruction, if Congress provides funds the program. The new law:

• Targets low-income schools, and K-9 students whose math skills are below grade level;

• Seeks to prepare students to reach at least grade-level expectations in math, and enroll in and pass algebra, a subject widely regarded as a key academic step in improving math skill;

• Requires states to establish “peer review” teams to review grant applications from districts;

• Mandates that those peer-review teams include mathematicians, research experts on math pedagogy, and educators serving “high risk, high-achievement” schools; and

• Allows school districts to use grants for instructional materials, “diagnostic and formative” assessments for students, remedial coursework and intervention, the creation of small-group learning environments, and improvement of teachers’ content knowledge.

SOURCE: America COMPETES (America Creating Opportunities to Meaningfully Promote Excellence in Technology, Education, and Science) Act.

By comparison, the legislative language on Math Now says that grants must be used for programs that are “research-based and have a demonstrated record of effectiveness,” but it does not define what that means.

“It’s another typical program where you can do anything you want to,” Mr. Sweet, who as a Republican aide helped write the Reading First legislation—adopted under the No Child Left Behind Act—said of Math Now. “It can be stuff that’s been tried and failed.”

“I personally don’t think it even bears a relationship with Reading First,” he said.

Reading First has won praise from many state officials and local educators, who credit it with improving student achievement in their districts. But the program has also been dogged by charges of mismanagement and conflicts of interest among officials who provided technical assistance to states about which programs were eligible for federal funding.

Conflict Resolution?

The Math Now program requires that the Education Department follow steps to guard against conflicts of interest. Those precautions include having the department establish a process for screening peer-review teams in states—the people who review local grant applications— for any such conflicts and requiring that the department’s office of general counsel review and approve that process.

In addition, the department must develop “transparent” procedures for reviewing grant applications, the law says, and along with the general counsel, screen for conflicts of interest among any contractors the agency uses to provide technical help to grant applicants.

Reports by the department’s inspector general and congressional investigators have found that some peer-review panelists and consultants providing technical assistance to grant applications under Reading First had professional ties to commercial reading programs. (“Federal Review of Reading First Identifies Serious Problems,” September 22, 2006, and “Senate Report Details ‘Reading First’ Conflicts of Interest,” May 9, 2007.)

Language in Math Now also specifically bars the department and its contractors from endorsing or approving any particular math curriculum, program, or instructional material—as critics allege has occurred with reading programs under Reading First.

Doug Mesecar, the department’s acting assistant secretary for planning, evaluation, and policy development, said Bush administration officials believe there were strong measures to guard against conflicts in Reading First, but he said officials would take whatever extra steps are required for Math Now.

“It is certainly an expression of Congress’ intent, and we intend to follow it,” Mr. Mesecar said of the conflict-of-interest language.

The Education Department is not likely to launch the grant process for Math Now until at least mid-2008, Mr. Mesecar said, because Congress has yet to appropriate funding for it.

Of the overall program, he said: “We’re relatively pleased with the final outcome. … It will increase the amount of research-based instruction for math in our schools.”

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Coverage of mathematics, science, and technology education is supported by a grant from the Ewing Marion Kauff-man Foundation at
A version of this article appeared in the September 26, 2007 edition of Education Week


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