Reading & Literacy

These Researchers Are Seeking Consensus in the Reading and Math Wars

By Sarah Schwartz — October 23, 2023 4 min read
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Two of the most fundamental subjects in school are also those that court some of the most controversy over teaching methods and goals: reading and math.

For decades, educators and researchers have argued about core questions in these fields—how much explicit instruction do children need? When should they be pushed to think creatively and problem solve? What skills should all kids come away with?

In reading, a recent push to align classroom practice to the evidence base on what works in early literacy instruction—known as the “science of reading” movement—has reignited some of these arguments. In math, similar conversations have resurfaced too, as debates have raged over new California guidelines in the subject.

This month, Education Week convened a panel of experts who are trying to bridge some of these divides in reading and math. They discussed their experiences convening researchers and advocates with different professional backgrounds—people who have different priorities and methods when it comes to what they consider evidence and how they evaluate effectiveness.

“At the moment, there are few things more important than trying to bridge the divide,” said Claude Goldenberg, a professor of education emeritus at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Education. Within both reading and math, different camps of educators have been at odds for many years, he said.

“It goes way beyond our century or the previous century, and it’s more than just about different research traditions—although it’s certainly that. But it taps into some of our deepest assumptions about human nature, and how people learn, and under what conditions they learn.”

These debates can delve into specific details about educational theory, but hashing them out isn’t just a matter of “academic hand-wringing,” said Nathan Jones, an associate professor in special education and education policy at Boston University. What teachers do or don’t learn from professors in their preparation programs and other respected voices in the field has consequences for their classroom practice—and ultimately for the students they teach, he said.

(Jones is currently on leave, serving as commissioner for the National Center for Special Education Research in the Institute of Education Sciences, part of the U.S. Department of Education.)

Read on for takeaways from the conversation. For more on the philosophical divides within the math and reading fields, and what they mean for how kids learn, see this story from our recent Big Ideas special report.

To find consensus, people must be open to changing their minds

When Jones and his colleague, University of Virginia associate professor Julie Cohen, received a National Science Foundation grant to develop curriculum materials that would help general education teachers support special education students in math, they knew they needed to get the right people in the room to discuss what those materials should look like.

“The most important precondition was folks who were open—intellectually open to listening and to hearing the other side,” said Jones.

He and Cohen wanted to identify practices that general education and special education university educators could agree would further student success. In the process, they found that the two groups had misconceptions about each other.

Often, Jones said, math educators criticized their special education colleagues, arguing that that field focused too much on mastering standard algorithms and procedures. But “the special educators in those conversations very much said, ‘No, we focus on sense-making and concept understanding,’” Jones said.

Certain phrases can become lightning rods, said Goldenberg. He has worked on several projects to find consensus between English-learner advocates and those in the science of reading movement on best practices for multilingual learners. The most recent of these, a joint statement on effective literacy instruction from the National Committee for Effective Literacy and the Reading League, was released earlier this month.

“We use the same words and mean different things,” Goldenberg said. In these consensus-building groups, he said, “we’re still sorting through what do you mean by balanced, what do you mean by science of reading.”

Even with a clear goal, there will be disagreement

Jones and Cohen’s project, to develop materials, had a specific aim. That helped matters.

“Part of what worked there is we had a clear, narrow goal,” Jones said, around which he and Cohen could structure conversations with academics.

Even with this targeted goal, though, the conversations were still difficult, said Cohen. She and Jones spend a year and a half bringing together special educators and general educators in consensus panels, trying to agree on practices they could both endorse.

“We found the work quite challenging,” said Cohen. “There were just lots of foundational things that the panelists really disagreed about.” These included explicit instruction—when to implement it, what it means, and how much to use it in a lesson—and what it means for a student to make an error.

“Even after a year and a half, we didn’t agree about what it meant to be mathematically proficient and how you would know,” she said. Definitions of proficiency ranged: Some instructors talked about being able to see the mathematical beauty in the world; others said proficiency meant being able to pass community college math courses.

Still, she said, “all of the panelists thought more conversation would be helpful and that that conversation doesn’t happen remotely enough.”

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