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Is the Math Teacher or the

Math Program the Problem?
Or Both?
Sandra Stotsky

The public knows that two major reasons for this country’s poor showing on inter-national mathe-matics tests are a limited supply of high school math teachers and inadequate con-tent knowledge in elementary and middle school math teachers.  But there is a third problem: the huge disciplinary and pedagogical demands made on these teachers by the math programs supported by the National Science Foundation in the past decade and a half, and the costs for training teachers how to use them.  None of the highest-achieving countries on inter-national tests relies on the kind of mathe-matics programs supported by the NSF.  

I learned about the third problem while overseeing professional development in math for Bay State teachers, and by watching and talking to teachers using NSF-supported programs. To fill in their many content gaps, these programs require supplements and far more mathematical knowledge than most of the state’s elementary or middle school teachers are likely to acquire, no matter how much professional development they undergo.

Mathematics educators insist that criticism of the NSF-supported math programs comes from mathematicians and parents who would rather see teachers drill on skills.  

But the critical voices of large numbers of teachers are finally being reported.   

A November 8 editorial in the Boston Globe, for example, noted the “collective groans” of over 100 Boston teachers attending a weekend retreat when the name of their K-5 math program was brought up.  

Like many school systems using a NSF-supported program, it was introduced into the system by a top-down administrative decision, with little teacher input. 

Among other limitations, according to the deputy superintendent of teaching and learning in the Boston schools, it leaves Boston’s students without the strong computational skills needed for higher level mathematics courses (and for which calculators are not a substitute). 

Not only must their teachers figure out how to supplement the program’s deficiencies, they must also take massive, never-ending professional development and—to rub more salt into the wounds—have coaches.

According to this editorial, the Massachusetts Department of Education is now attempting to collect information on how students in schools using NSF-supported programs do on the state’s math tests.  The Department is rightly concerned about the slight increases in the percent of students moving up to the Proficient and Advanced levels on the state’s elementary and middle school math tests since their inception in 1998.  An article by Tom Mountain in the Newton Tab for January 12, 2005 suggests that we have good reason to be alarmed. 

This high achieving community, with very highly paid administrators, can’t figure out why one-third of its sixth graders are now in the Warning and Needs Improvement category, a percentage that has been steadily increasing in the past three years, while attendance at the Russian School of Mathematics in Newton, an after-school program in mathematics, continues to grow.  Newton’s elementary schools, too, by top-down decision, have been using NSF-supported math programs.

It might also be useful for the Department to examine its current math test blueprints and assessment committee memberships to see how program-neutral or program-inclusive they are. 

As I discovered, consultants from the Technical Education Research Center in Cambridge, the organization that created the elementary math program Boston teachers are unhappy about, helped develop the 1996 Massachusetts standards in mathematics (and science), and TERC users and supporters quite naturally helped shape the original test blueprints and assessment committees.  Enthusiasts for NSF-supported math programs have shaped almost all statesstandards and math tests in the ’ math past ten years, which undoubtedly suggests why the majority of states received grades of D or F on their math standards from six mathematicians in the latest review of state math standards put out by the Fordham Foundation.  It does not seem fair to hold teachers accountable for results on tests that are slanted towards the very math programs many of these teachers seem to find so problematic. 

Unfortunately, the public doesn't get reports on their collective voices very often.  

The results of several recent and thorough studies indirectly support teachers’ concerns. In 2004, the National Research Council completed a comprehensive review of studies evaluating the math programs supported by the National Science Foundation during the 1990s.  It concluded that no valid body of studies supports the effectiveness of any of these programs.  

Nor is there any clear evidence to justify the millions of dollars expended by NSF during the 1990s to train teachers to use these math programs.  And for education policy makers who think that coaching is the solution, a summary of the research on coaching, reported in the July/August 2004 Harvard Education Letter, notes that “few, if any, studies provide evidence that coaching strategies, in whatever form, lead to greater student learning.” 

The Department learned that firsthand in a carefully implemented and costly two-year Middle School Mathematics Initiative (2000-2002) evaluating the effectiveness of mathematics coaches in over a dozen low-income middle schools.  It also learned in a 2003 study that top-down decisions on the grade 8 math programs to be used in a school system were less related to student achievement than were programs selected by the teachers themselves.  Urban schools were deliberately over-sampled in this study.  Both reports are available at the Department.

Elementary and middle school teachers should be allowed to choose and use teachable math programs that aim for conceptual understanding and computational fluency, provide strong content in a coherent sequence, and do not subscribe to the trendy “reform” notion that teaching standard algorithms is dangerous to children’s health.  

There are many useful ways to spend the funds schools would save if they didn’t have to provide for the endless professional development of teachers who have been compelled to use content-light, incoherent, and difficult-to-teach math programs.  

**Sandra Stotsky, a research scholar at Northeastern University, was Senior Associate Commissioner in the Massachusetts Department of Education from 1999 to 2003, in charge of the Center for Teaching and Learning.

*Send your questions comments to ValleyPatriot@aol.com
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