A group of researchers is seeking answers to one of the biggest debates in math education: Do new, federally financed curricula based on voluntary national mathematics standards help raise student achievement?
Now, the panel of eight educators and mathematicians is starting to review studies evaluating the new curricula to determine whether the studies are rigorous enough to draw definitive conclusions about the effectiveness of the programs.
“We can step back from the politically charged discussion so we can work on establishing a solid research base for evaluating and judging the effectiveness of these programs,” Jere Confrey, the chairwoman of the committee and a professor of mathematics education at the University of Texas at Austin, said in an interview at the panel’s two-day meeting here last week.
One conclusion that might be drawn from the project, Ms. Confrey said, is that the research now available is good enough for a future committee’s review and evaluation of the effectiveness of the programs.
But the review might also find that the “evidence is not complete enough,” she said. Then the panel would suggest a research agenda that could deliver a verdict on the programs.
The National Science Foundation is paying for the study, which is being conducted by the National Academy of Sciences. The congressionally chartered academy plays the role of an independent arbiter in significant research debates.
What to Do Differently
Starting about 10 years ago, the NSF made grants to mathematicians and math educators to write curricula aligned with the 1989 standards published by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.
The curricula introduced topics not previously covered in certain grades—such as statistics in the elementary years—and de-emphasized some of the skills commonly taught by repetition and memorization, such as the multiplication tables.
Some of the programs are now published and marketed by such publishing empires as the New York City-based McGraw-Hill Cos. and London- based Pearson PLC.
But the products have fueled the so-called “math wars.” Traditionalists—led mostly by university-based mathematicians—say that the NSF curricula often ignore or gloss over important topics such as quadratic equations and the division of fractions.
At the session last week, the NAS panel members outlined plans to hear from the programs’ critics and supporters this coming fall. The dialogue, Ms. Confrey and other panelists said, may help find some common ground between the adversaries.
“The debate that hasn’t happened is what mathematicians would like to see done differently,” said William H. Schmidt, a professor of educational psychology and measurement at Michigan State University in East Lansing.
The sessions, Mr. Schmidt added, will also help the NAS panel find out the kinds of student-achievement gains professional mathematicians want to see to determine whether a program is succeeding.
In addition, the panel will hear from educators about how they suggest committee members evaluate the content of the programs and the professional development they offer, as well as compare the curriculum research with that in other fields.
Other panel members are: Carlos Castillo-Chavez, a professor of biomathematics at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y.; Douglas A. Grouws, a professor of curriculum and instruction at the University of Iowa in Iowa City; Carolyn Mahoney, the dean of the school of mathematics, science, and technology at Elizabeth City State University in North Carolina; Donald Saari, a professor of economics and mathematics at the University of California, Irvine; Patrick W. Thompson, a professor of mathematics education at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn.; and William Velez, a professor of mathematics at the University of Arizona in Tuscon.
Advocacy or Research?
Critics of the NSF programs suggest that the national academy’s panel won’t find much objective research, because curriculum writers themselves or those with a financial stake in curricula conduct most of the analyses.
“The NSF-funded studies never find anything wrong with the programs that the NSF funds,” contended David Klein, a mathematics professor at California State University-Northridge. “The reports are always glowing.”
And the studies’ authors don’t share data with those who want to do secondary analysis, said Wayne W. Bishop, a professor of mathematics at California State University-Los Angeles.
The NAS panel is scheduled to publish its report by March.
A version of this article appeared in the June 12, 2002 edition of Education Week as Panel to Examine Standards-Based Math Curricula