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Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Expert Panel Lays Out the Path to Algebra--and Why It Matters


Jeffrey Mervis

The voyage spanned 2 years, 12 public meetings, and 14,000 e-mails. But Larry Faulkner, a chemist and former president of the University of Texas, Austin, has successfully steered the National Mathematics Advisory Panel through some of the roughest waters in U.S. education. The result, out last week, is a 120-page report on the importance of preparing students for algebra, normally taught in the eighth and ninth grades, and its role as a gateway course for later success in high school, college, and the workplace (Science, 7 December 2007, p. 1534).
The report ( urges educators to keep it simple: Define a few key topics and teach them until students master them. Along the way, it says, students should memorize basic arithmetic facts and spend more time on fractions and their meaning. How teachers achieve those goals is up to them, Faulkner says, advice that allowed the panel to avoid taking sides in a debilitating, 2-decade-long debate about the appropriate balance between drilling students on the material and making sure they understand what they are doing.
The 19-member panel was supposed to rely on sound science in its advice to U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, but only a relative handful of the 16,000 studies it examined turned out to be useful. The vast majority, says Faulkner, were of insufficient quality, too narrow in scope, or lacked conclusive findings. The literature is especially thin on how to train teachers and how good teachers help students learn.
Spellings has promised to hold a national summit this year on implementing the panel's 45 recommendations. But the primacy of local control over education could make the federal government more of a cheerleader than a participant.
Faulkner, whose day job is president of the Houston Endowment, a Texas philanthropy, spoke with Science on 13 March, the day the report was released.
Figure 1
Q: The report notes that U.S. elementary students do okay on international math tests and that the falloff begins at the end of middle school and accelerates into high school. So why focus on K-8 math?
L.F.: You can also argue that the falloff reflects the inability of students to handle algebra. If you look at success rates in algebra or proficiency in algebraic concepts, there's ample evidence that students are not succeeding, and our charge is to increase the likelihood that they will succeed.
Figure 2
Q: Why do so many students have trouble with fractions?
L.F.: Fractions have been downplayed. There's been a tendency in recent decades to regard fractions to be operationally less important than numbers because you can express everything in decimals or in spreadsheets. But it's important to have an instinctual sense of what a third of a pie is, or what 20% of something is, to understand the ratio of numbers involved and what happens as you manipulate it.
Q: How could schools lose sight of that?
L.F.: Well, they did.
Q: Was the panel disappointed by the overall quality of the existing research?
L.F.: I think quality is an issue, but that's not all there is. Some of what we examined was topically irrelevant, or the studies were not very generalizable. Some high-quality studies were so narrowly defined that they don't tell you much about what goes on in the classroom.
It may have to do with what the researchers could do with the money available. So we want to be careful about throwing rocks at people. … We go to great lengths to point out that we think the nation requires a balanced program that includes what I would call smaller scale, pilot-oriented research as well as larger scale investigations that are more analogous to clinical trials in medicine. We found a serious lack of studies with adequate scale and design for us to reach conclusions about their applicability for implementation.
Q: Should the government be spending more money on this research?
L.F.: Education research covers a lot of territory, so we don't really know. … When I briefed the science adviser, Jack Marburger, yesterday, I said maybe his office should be thinking about it. He just nodded. We think this is an item that deserves the attention of the federal government. It probably means bigger grants. If you want to get the value, you probably need to pay for it.
Q: Were you surprised by the dearth of good data on professional development programs?
L.F.: There's tremendous variation in inservice programs. And the evidence is that many are not very effective. … I think districts should be very careful. Large amounts of money are being spent in this area, and serious questions should be raised.
Q: What's the panel's view on calculators?
L.F.: We feel strongly that they should not get in the way of acquiring automaticity [memorization of basic facts]. But the larger issue is the effectiveness of pedagogical software. At this stage, there's no evidence of substantial benefit or damage, but we wouldn't rule out products that could show a benefit. If a product could be demonstrated to be effective on a sizable scale under various conditions, the panel would be interested.
Q: What message should the next president take from this report?
L.F.: The most important thing is that success in math is not just about a school subject. It's about the real opportunities it creates for people and for the well-being and safety of society. It's important that we succeed to a better level than we do now.

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