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White House Suggests Model Used in Reading to Elevate Math Skills
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
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.”
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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