Mathematics

Math Panel Issues Its First Report, But Holds Off on Policy Proposals

By Sean Cavanagh — January 17, 2007 4 min read
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A national advisory panel studying mathematics instruction has completed an interim report on its work for the White House, though members of the group have not yet offered specific recommendations for improving teaching and learning in that subject.

The Bush administration, which appointed the 17 voting members of the National Mathematics Advisory Panel a year ago, originally had hoped the group’s preliminary report would give some specific advice, possibly to help guide the distribution of federal math grants.

Larry R. Faulkner

But the panel’s chairman, former University of Texas President Larry R. Faulkner, said members did not want to issue detailed recommendations before their research is complete. The 16-page interim report instead briefly describes the panel’s progress so far, its organization into subcommittees studying different topics, and the rules it is following in its research.

“We are in the midst of a serious review of the evidence,” Mr. Faulkner said in an interview from New Orleans, the site of the panel’s fifth public meeting. “We’re not really in a [sufficiently advanced] state to communicate findings.”

Francis M. “Skip” Fennell, a panelist who is the president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, said the group had collected detailed information through four separate committees studying different math topics. That work, however, is still ongoing, he said.

“We now have at least some substantial thinking about where this is moving,” he said. “All of the groups need more time to write and flesh things out.”

The interim report sets ground rules for how the panel will issue findings, saying that “every assertion or statement of fact in its final report [will] either be labeled as a definition or opinion, or backed up by a citation.” The group will also try to convey how strong or weak the pool of research is in every area of math instruction, it says.

President Bush announced the formation of the panel last February, charging it with providing recommendations on how schools and teachers could prepare students for algebra and higher-level math, and identify proven strategies for accomplishing that goal. The panel was asked to produce a preliminary report by Jan. 31 of this year, and a final document by Feb. 28, 2008. Mr. Faulkner said a complete set of recommendations would be issued in that final report.

Modeled on Reading

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Mr. Bush formed the math panel amid a flurry of proposals made last year by his administration and federal lawmakers on math and science education. While most of those proposals stalled in Congress, the panel pressed ahead with its work, holding meetings across the country to review research, debate approaches to math instruction, and hear testimony from experts and the general public. Only last week, however, new legislation was unveiled with the goal of shoring up students’ mastery of math and science through voluntary national standards.

Bush administration officials modeled the math group after the National Reading Panel, which was convened during the Clinton presidency to identify effective classroom strategies in that subject. The reading panel’s report provided a basis for the Bush administration’s policies in awarding grants through its $1 billion-a-year Reading First program that has been mired in controversy.

The impact of the math panel’s activity, however, is less certain. Administration officials said last year they hoped the panel’s work—even its interim report—could shape the distribution of grants under the president’s proposed “Math Now” initiative, a $250 million grant program to support instruction in elementary and middle schools. So far, Congress has neither appropriated funds for nor authorized the creation of Math Now.

How Much Impact?

Mr. Faulkner acknowledged that the goals for the interim report have changed, because of both the uncertainty about Math Now and the panelists’ realization of how much work they have left to do. He believes administration officials were aware of the group’s progress, noting that Raymond J. Simon, the deputy U.S. secretary of education, serves on the panel as a nonvoting member.

During their meetings, several panelists have pointed out that several federally commissioned studies on how to improve math education have been conducted over the past 20 years—reports that were well received but ultimately had little bearing on school policy. They said they wanted their work to have a broader reach.

Math experts have engaged in bitter debates over the years about how best to teach math. That divide is often defined as pitting advocates of teaching basic skills against those who argue that students should be exposed to more conceptual learning.

Many in the math field were encouraged by the publication of “Curriculum Focal Points,” a document released by the influential National Council of Teachers of Mathematics in September. (“Math Organization Attempts to Bring Focus to Subject,” Sept. 20, 2006.)

The 41-page guidelines offer a more concise, streamlined set of topics than teachers have had previously, and observers say the guidance will help educators sort through often-contradictory priorities presented in textbooks and academic standards.

Mr. Faulkner said while the panel “was not prepared to endorse a curriculum,” there was a sense among the group’s members that the NCTM was “on good footing” in having published the document.

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A version of this article appeared in the January 17, 2007 edition of Education Week as Math Panel Issues Its First Report, But Holds Off on Policy Proposals

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