“Reform” Math in Public and Private Schools

By Sean Cavanagh — December 23, 2008 3 min read
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There’s a long, fractious debate over the performance of public schools v. private schools in this country, and that feud has grown more intense over the past few years, with the publication of a couple of intriguing studies on student performance that compare the two systems.

And if subject-specific fights are your thing, you’d find a similar level of rancor in play in the so-called “math wars,” the seemingly unceasing disagreement over the value of “reform”-oriented math, as opposed to a more “traditional” curriculum. (Though there has been noticeable evidence of a détente among the various factions in recent years.)

A recent study touches on both of these volatile topics, and produces some very provacative results, as my colleague Debbie Viadero noted in a recent column. It’s sure to provoke a lot more discussion, and possibly more research.

A study published by Sarah Theule Lubienski, of the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign, examines why public school students perform as well, and, in some cases, better than private school pupils on national math tests, as judged by NAEP scores. The study, co-authored by Christopher Lubienski (Sarah’s husband) and Corinna Crawford Crane, suggests two explanations for the relatively strong public school performance: public school students were more likely to be taught by teachers who were certified, and by those who used “reform”-focused approaches to teaching math.

The study was a follow up to an earlier one published by that same team of researchers a few years ago, which documented public schools faring well, compared to private schools. Not surprisingly, those findings were disputed by some researchers, though a federal study published shortly afterward by the National Center for Education Stastistics reached similar conclusions.

The most relevant aspect of the recent study to many in the the math community, of course, is how well “reform”-oriented math stacks up. “Reform” is a malleable, and overused term in K-12 education these days, and defining it is a perilous enterprise. But in the K-12 math universe, the term has generally been associated with the standards and methods promoted by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. The study defines it generally as curriculum that “emphasizes student sense-making and…de-emphasizes (is this ok, since it’s in a quote?) rote learning and routine procedures.” The proper use of calculators and manipulatives is also encouraged. Additionally, the authors note that NCTM has modified its curricular goals to place greater emphasis on geometry and measurement, data analysis/probability, and other topics.

As the authors note, scores on the main NAEP have risen over the past 15 years, though there’s been much debate about whether those gains occurred “because of, or in spite of” NCTM standards.

The authors examined NAEP scores and linked the responses to surveys of students and teachers, given as part of the test, Ms. Lubienski explained in an e-mail. Fourth and 8th grade students were asked questions about the nature of math, such as whether they thought “learning mathematics is mostly memorizing facts,” and “there is only one correct way to solve a mathematics problem.” Teachers were asked about their classroom methods—use of calculators, emphasis on geometry and measurement, and so on.

The results showed that “reform” oriented instruction correlated positively with achievement, and that it was more common in public schools than private ones. The “strongest, most persistent predictor of achievement” at grade 4 was teachers’ emphasis on non-number math strands, the study found, such as geometry, measurement, data analysis/probability.

I suspect that the reaction to the study will focus on the authors’ assumptions about what constitutes “reform” math, and on the accuracy of the information gleaned from the NAEP student/teacher surveys. One study won’t settle anything, of course, but it will deepen the pool of research in this area, and advance the discussion (possibly on this blog).

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