Putting the Math Cart Before the Counting Horse

If we are to improve our schools, we need research-based instruction.  Student achievement increases when we use instruction and interventions that are proven effective.  Do what works, and see the results.  It is an easy concept to spout, but a far harder one to put into practice.

Since the release of the National Reading Panel report in April of 2000, many have called for the adoption of scientifically based practice in reading and English-Language Arts classrooms throughout the nation.  We all know every student should be reading at grade level, particularly by the time they hit fourth grade.  Most of us know what it takes to get a child to read proficiently.  And some are unrelenting in ensuring that scientifically based reading is the one and only standard when it comes to our classrooms.

But what about math?  With the passage of NCLB, we all know that reading and math are the lighthouses for student achievement (with science shortly coming online).  Where are the similar demands for scientifically based math instruction in the classroom?  Isn’t it just as important to do what we know works, to do what is proven effective in teaching children math skills?  After all, we consistently use math as that great barometer to determining if our students have the chops to compete with students across the globe.

For those who missed it, last week Congress declared its intention to fund nearly $100 million in math instruction grants under Math Now, part of the America COMPETES Act.  If you didn’t see it, Sean Cavanagh and Education Week have the story — http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2007/09/26/05mathnow.h27.html.

Sure, it’s easy to compare Math Now with Reading First, at least from Eduflack’s perch.  For RF, $1 billion a year to start.  For Math Now, $95 million (though supporters sought $250 million).  Both designed to support the adoption of instructionally sound practice.  Both desperately needed, particularly in our struggling schools.

There is one major difference, though.  Reading First was designed to put National Reading Panel and National Academies of Sciences’ research on how best to teach children to read into practice.  We identify what works and put our money behind it.  On the whole, the effort has been successful.  Like just about everything, the program needs improvement (the sort of improvements most government programs can learn from).  Reading First should be strengthened, tightened, and faced with greater oversight, ensuring that only truly research-based programs are receiving funding.  Our taxpayer dollars shouldn’t be going to fund promises or pledges or hopes or silver bullets.  We expect results.  We pay for what works.  That was the promise that Reading First made, a promise many are still waiting to be fulfilled.

Which takes us back to math.  Last year, the U.S. Department of Education announced the formation of the National Mathematics Advisory Panel.  The Math Panel’s findings are expected early next year, and the charge is to do for math research much of what the NRP did for reading research.  The panel is to tell us what works in teaching math, identifying the most effective and replicable instruction for empowering our students with math ability.

Makes you ask, then, what Math Now is based on, if the Math Panel’s findings aren’t due for another six months or so?  Unfortunately, this may be yet another example of rhetoric not quite aligning with practice.  Math Now is throwing its support behind initiative that are “research-based and have a demonstrated record of effectiveness.”  Shouldn’t we be waiting for the Math Panel to issue its report, detailing what the research base is and what the data tells us about effective math instruction?

Yes, it is important that we signal we are moving beyond the status quo.  We need to communicate a unifying commitment to boost student achievement.  And we need to pledge our support for research-based instruction and interventions that are proven to work.  Anything short of that, we are throwing good money after bad, with no hope of truly fixing the problem.

The America COMPETES Act is well-meaning legislation.  And Math Now is a good idea with real potential.  We just need to make sure it has the research support, the strong oversight, the cadre of advocates, and the effective communication to succeed.  Education reform cannot afford another “half-way” attempt at improving instruction of a core subject matter.  If we don’t take all of the necessary steps — research, policy, and communications — we will never solve the equation.

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