White House Suggests Model Used in Reading To Elevate Math Skills

By Sean Cavanagh — February 10, 2006 7 min read
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The Bush administration is trying to take a more aggressive role in strengthening math education, using its sweeping, and sometimes controversial, endeavors in reading as a guide.

To that end, the White House is focusing on research to shape how students across the country are taught the most basic mathematical concepts.

Unveiled this month, the plan would potentially give the federal government far more influence over classroom practices that traditionally have been left to states, school districts, and individual teachers. The proposal would establish a National Mathematics Panel to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of various teaching strategies, akin to the body set up in the 1990s to judge reading methodologies. It would also introduce Math Now, a program to promote “promising research-based practices” in elementary and middle school math.

The White House proposals are part of a larger, $380 million plan to improve math and science education, with the goal of producing a more skilled workforce and sustaining economic competitiveness internationally.

Both undertakings would be modeled on actions the federal government took toward reading, including the $1 billion-a-year Reading First program, which distributes grants to states for districts to carry out reading strategies federal officials deem to be effective and backed by research.

That program has strong support in some quarters, but it has also drawn complaints. Critics say it favors certain commercial programs and instructional methods, while discounting others that have equally strong records of success. The U.S. Department of Education has repeatedly denied such allegations, but its inspector general and the Government Accountability Office, the watchdog arm of Congress, are investigating complaints. (“GAO to Probe Federal Plan for Reading,” Oct. 12, 2005.)

Several math experts voiced support for the administration’s proposal. They also warned that the same conflicts and controversy that have dogged the reading program could occur in math.

“It’s high time we put an emphasis on what’s going on in math research,” said Deborah Loewenberg Ball, a prominent math scholar. While she supports the creation of a National Mathematics Panel, she also said its success would depend on its |objectivity.

“The question is, ‘Who gets on it?’ ” Ms. Ball said. “It has to be people who can work past the ideology. If it appears to people [that it’s] biased, people won’t buy into it. And that will be a pity.”

‘Spotty’ Research

Mathematicians, scholars, and teachers have long argued over what approaches to math instruction work best in the classroom. At issue, in broad terms, is whether teachers should focus more on building students’ conceptual understanding of the subject, or emphasize nurturing their mastery of basic math skills.

Promoting Math and Science

The Bush administration has proposed a series of initiatives in its fiscal 2007 budget aimed at improving math and science instruction.


National Mathematics Panel
Panelists would “empirically evaluate” methods of teaching mathematics and establish a broader research base to improve instruction. Administration officials cite as a model the National Reading Panel. $10 million

Math Now
The initiative would promote “promising research-based practices” in math instruction in elementary and middle schools, $250 million; examine students’ weaknesses in the subject; and produce strategies to enable more students to improve in algebra. The administration likens the plan to Reading First.

Advanced Placement
Federal programs would be expanded through competitive grants for AP and International Baccalaureate courses in math and science. Federal money would support efforts to increase economically disadvantaged students’ access to AP, teacher training in those courses, and incentives for teachers whose students achieve high test results. $122 million

Adjunct Teacher Corps
Thirty thousand professionals in the math and science fields would be encouraged to become “adjunct” high school teachers by 2015. $25 million

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education

Francis “Skip” Fennell, the incoming president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, in Reston, Va., said he was heartened by the administration’s proposal. But he also expressed his hope that, once the math panel began its work, his 100,000-member organization would be “a part of that discussion.” The NCTM has traditionally advocated students’ need for strong understanding of conceptual math.

“I’m encouraged by the attention given to math at the elementary and middle level,” Mr. Fennell said of the administration’s plan. “I like the notion that this is not ‘math next,’ it’s ‘math now.’ ”

In interviews, several math experts, who have been associated with either camp in the “math wars,” generally agreed on one point: The amount of research on what works in math education is relatively thin, compared with reading.

In an attempt to set a bar for research, the congressionally chartered National Research Council in 2004 released a report on how math programs should be judged. It concluded that four different types of studies should be conducted of math curricula in weighing their effectiveness. (“NRC Urges Multiple Studies For Math Curricula,” May 26, 2004.)

Ms. Ball, the dean at the University of Michigan’s college of education, said far more work is needed in areas such as the order in which students should learn various math lessons.

Currently, schools are forced to repeat too much math material from grade to grade, in part because students don’t gain an in-depth understanding of concepts the first time they are presented, Ms. Ball said. “There’s a lot of forgetting that goes on,” she added.

Ms. Ball is one of six authors of an influential paper published last year by the American Mathematical Society, a Washington-based professional association. The diverse collection of writers put aside long-standing disagreements about math in that paper, “Reaching for Common Ground in K-12 Mathematics Education,” and instead spelled out common areas of agreement.

Bush administration officials, in crafting their math and science proposal, had discussions with several of those authors, including Richard J. Schaar, a former president of the business unit for Texas Instruments Inc., and R. James Milgram, an influential mathematics professor at Stanford University.

Mr. Schaar said he had discussions with a longtime acquaintance, Tom Luce, the Education Department’s assistant secretary for planning, evaluation, and policy development, and other administration officials about math instruction. The consensus reached by the “Common Ground” authors gave Mr. Schaar confidence that a national math panel could work, if a proper mix of perspectives, from both mathematicians and K-12 math teachers, were included.

“We can get some pretty diverse elements in the room and come out with a document that works for people,” Mr. Schaar said.

Reading Complaints

Congress authorized the creation of the National Reading Panel in 1997. Its 15 members were picked by the National Institute on Child Health and Human Development from a pool of 300-plus applicants. Although its members came from a variety of backgrounds, critics from the start questioned the panel’s ability to represent a range of opinions. The panel, for example, considered an overly narrow set of studies on reading instruction, ignoring others that did not meet those criteria, its detractors claimed.

In 2000, the panel issued its recommendations, including that systematic phonics instruction—the connections between sounds and the alphabet—should be a routine part of reading instruction, though lessons should be tailored to students’ needs.

The reading panel’s recommendations, made near the end of the Clinton presidency, formed the basis of President Bush’s Reading First program. Part of the 4-year-old No Child Left Behind Act, that effort allows states to apply for federal grants; applications are supposed to be judged on the basis of their adherence to the research-based practices identified by the panel.

While it has many supporters, Reading First has been dogged by allegations that federal officials have steered contracts to favored publishers and consultants and selectively enforced the mandate to judge reading programs by their adherence adherence to scientifically based research.

Joanne Yatvin, a member of the National Reading Panel who was critical of its makeup—particularly its lack of K-12 officials—and its eventual conclusions, believes the math group could be plagued by the same problems, if participants seek to push an overly prescriptive approach to the subject.

“Teachers need an array of methods to make choices,” said Ms. Yatvin, the president-elect of the National Council of Teachers of English. “That’s what good teaching is.”

Moving Quickly

Administration officials say they have no plans to promote any single instructional approach in mathematics. While they have not decided on a process for appointing members to the math panel, the goal is to have its work complete by the end of this year, said Holly A. Kuzmich, the Education Department’s deputy assistant secretary for planning, evaluation, and policy development. The panel’s recommendations on research-based practices would then be promoted through Math Now, she said.

Creating the math panel would not require congressional approval, Ms. Kuzmich believes. Still, both the panel and the Math Now proposal are included as part of the administration’s 2007 budget, which requires the approval of federal lawmakers.

Some observers have questioned the federal reading program’s consistency with the No Child Left Behind Act, which says the federal government cannot “mandate, direct, or control” the instructional content or curriculum of a state, school district, or school.

Ms. Kuzmich, however, said the administration has no interest in dictating those policies or in “arguing about curricular issues” when it comes to differences over how best to teach math. She said officials had sought input from several organizations, including the NCTM, as well as scholars and school leaders in devising the math proposal. “There are things we all agree on,” said Ms. Kuzmich.


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