To the Editor:
Your front-page article “Study Gives Edge to 2 Math Programs” (March 4, 2009) represents both how difficult it is to measure educational phenomena and the dangers of a certain type of journalism.
The article begins by declaring two winners among four popular commercial math curricula. After a brief acknowledgment that this may not end the “so-called ‘math wars’ anytime soon,” it goes on to rank the programs and report the findings of the federal experiment, commissioned by the Institute of Education Sciences.
Only later in the article do we learn that these results were from just the first year of a three-year study involving a nonrepresentative sample of U.S. 1st graders, that one of the programs had students spending an additional hour a day on mathematics instruction, and that one of the programs had significantly less coaching support than the others.
In my opinion, these variables significantly skew the outcomes of this project. This is even before we take into account variability among students, teachers, teacher training, and the like. Ultimately, even if the measurement comparing these programs was accurate (and I have serious doubts about this assertion), it is less important to know where students are after one year than to know how they emerge once the programs are complete.
It is hard to believe that any solid conclusions can be drawn in terms of these math curricula based on this research project, and I shudder to think how much this study is costing. Frankly, to give it front-page attention and then to reveal the major limitations of the research toward the end of the article sets a dangerous precedent that a newspaper dedicated to educational coverage should avoid.
G. Putnam Goodwin-Boyd
A version of this article appeared in the April 08, 2009 edition of Education Week as Finding Flaws in a Study And Its Front-Page Report