It Just Adds Up

Nearly eight years ago, the National Reading Panel released its findings before Congress, officially starting the push for scientifically based reading research — or SBRR — in the classroom.  Then, just as now, we knew that all students needed reading skills in order to achieve.  We knew that an inability to read at grade level by fourth grade would hamper learning ability throughout a student’s academic career.  And, thanks to the NRP and the previous work done by the National Academies of Science, we know what our classrooms needed to do to transform every child into a reader.  The research was clear, the NRP documented it, and the challenge became equipping every teacher with the knowledgebase and ability to use that research and get kids reading.

In many ways, the NRP report was a revolution.  Strong supporters and equally strong opponents went through it recommendation by recommendation, idea by idea.  Other researchers, such as Camilli, re-analyzed everything to determine if the findings were accurate (they were).  And in the end, the research stands as strong today as it did in April of 2000.  Some may attack the personalities involved in the NRP.  Others may wish the NRP had studied more issues or made additional recommendations (particularly as they relate to literature or to qualitative research).  And still others may wish the NRP findings had been more flexibly adopted as part of Reading First.  But no one can question that the NRP started a revolution, giving us a new way to look at education, a new way to look at educational research, and higher standard for doing what works and seeking return on educational investment.  (Full disclosure, Eduflack was senior advisor to the NRP, and damned proud of the Panel, its work, and its impact on education.)

It took years before we saw the full impact of the NRP findings.  SBRR didn’t enter the discussion until two years later, after NCLB and RF were signed into law.  (Yes, the NRP was a Clinton-era initiative).  But look at it now.

It is significant to remember this as we look at this week’s report from the National Mathematics Advisory Panel.  For those who missed it (and it was hard to, with the significant media coverage it received from the nation’s leading newspapers), the Math Panel offered significant recommendations on the math skills our students need to succeed and how our nation’s teachers can empower all students with such skills.

In doing so, the Math Panel has now planted a firm flag in the name of education reform and improved student achievement.  By looking at ways to improve the PreK through eighth grade math curriculum, the Panel has clearly articulated what our kids should know as part of their mathematics education.  And they have provided specific goals for math instruction, goals that can and should guide curriculum development, program acquisition, teaching, and learning in schools and classrooms across the nation.

The Panel’s members should be applauded for their hard work and their commitment.  This report is an important milestone in the improvement of math education in the United States.  Unfortunately, it is just the first step of many.  From Eduflack’s experience, the hard work begins now.  Now, we have to move those findings into practice.

Too often, we’ve seen important government studies that never live up to their potentials.  Reports are published.  Copies are distributed.  Then they sit in closets or on bookshelves never to be seen again.  Many believe simply distributing the report, and raising awareness of its existence and contents, is all that is needed.  We know, however, that is far from the case.

For the Math Panel report to have the impact it should have on our schools, we need to look beyond mere information distribution and focus on changing math teaching and math learning.  If we learned anything from the NRP, it is that an aggressive public engagement campaign is key to long-term impact.  Yes, it is important that we learn of the Math Panel’s findings.  But it is more important for teachers to understand how they need to change their practice and the impact it will have on students.  We need administrators to know what they must look for in selecting curricular solutions.  We need teacher educators to know what skills and abilities they must equip future generations of math teachers with.  We must let all of our key stakeholders know what they have to do differently to meet the Math Panel’s goals — and we must arm them with the resources and support necessary to achieve it.

The time is now for the National Mathematics Advisory Panel and math educators, math advocates, parents, and policymakers who are committed to boosting math achievement among U.S. students.  And it is a time to act.  With a clear blueprint, we know where we need to go and what we need to do.  Now, we must learn from the experiences of the NRP, avoid the political roadblocks and the straying from the research, and focus on doing.  It’s the only way our kids can ensure that classroom experience times research-based practice equals long-term results.

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