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The E-Accountability Foundation announces the

'A for Accountability' Award

to those who are willing to whistleblow unjust, misleading, or false actions and claims of the politico-educational complex in order to bring about educational reform in favor of children of all races, intellectual ability and economic status. They ask questions that need to be asked, such as "where is the money?" and "Why does it have to be this way?" and they never give up. These people have withstood adversity and have held those who seem not to believe in honesty, integrity and compassion accountable for their actions. The winners of our "A" work to expose wrong-doing not for themselves, but for others - total strangers - for the "Greater Good"of the community and, by their actions, exemplify courage and self-less passion. They are parent advocates. We salute you.

Winners of the "A":

Johnnie Mae Allen
David Possner
Dee Alpert
Joan Klingsberg
Harris Lirtzman
Hipolito Colon
Jim Calantjis
Larry Fisher
The Giraffe Project and Giraffe Heroes' Program
Jimmy Kilpatrick and George Scott
Zach Kopplin
Matthew LaClair
Wangari Maathai
Erich Martel
Steve Orel, in memoriam, Interversity, and The World of Opportunity
Marla Ruzicka, in Memoriam
Nancy Swan
Bob Witanek
Peyton Wolcott
[ More Details » ]
A Plea to Improve the Teaching of Math in America

We can do better at teaching kids math
By William McCallum and Susan Jo Russell, December 14, 2004


FOR DECADES the United States has not been producing a population that is fully competent and confident in mathematics. Recent test data from the Program for International Student Assessment indicate that 15-year-old students in the United States perform below average in mathematics literacy and problem solving compared with teenagers in other developed nations. Why are students not learning to solve math problems like those they might encounter in the workplace or other real-world situations?

One view is that we should build on the traditional mathematics curriculum we grew up with, in which we learned a procedure and then practiced it on pages of problems. Yet too often this approach goes no further, giving students skills without the knowledge needed to apply them. When James Stigler of UCLA and and James Hiebert of the University of Delaware studied eighth-grade classrooms in countries such as Hong Kong, Japan, and the Netherlands, where students outperform US students, they concluded that US students rarely spend time on "serious study of mathematical concepts."

Another view says that before students practice procedures, they should focus on the ideas behind those procedures: ideas about how numbers are related, how our base 10 number system works, what the arithmetic operations do and how they are related to each other. The National Science Foundation has funded the development of elementary, middle, and high school curriculums grounded in this approach.

TERC, a nonprofit research and development organization based in Cambridge, designed one of the elementary curriculums, "Investigations in Number, Data, and Space." Investigations has been extensively tested, with thousands of hours spent in urban and suburban classrooms documenting student learning to inform the development of the materials.

Given the current state of mathematics education, it is worth trying different approaches. But we must monitor them. Student performance on state-mandated tests shows that school systems incorporating curriculums funded by the National Science Foundation into a long-term plan for mathematics -- including Boston -- can make marked improvement.

In Boston, the percentage of failing students on the MCAS in grade 4 decreased from 46 percent to 30 percent between 2000 and 2004. During the same period, students scoring in the Proficient and Advanced categories increased from 14 percent to 22 percent.

A study by Comap Inc. included more than 100,000 students in Massachusetts, Illinois, and Washington. About half had studied at one of the three Science Foundation-funded elementary curriculums for at least two years; the other half, from comparison schools, were rigorously matched by reading level, socioeconomic status, and other variables.

The average scores in the first group, including scores on all computation subtests, were significantly higher than in the comparison schools. These results hold across different ethnic and income groups, and across the different state-mandated tests, including the MCAS.

Should students learn basic facts? Yes. Should they learn to add, subtract, multiply, and divide fluently? Certainly. But too often we lose sight of the fact that we must achieve both good computation skills and a good understanding of the mathematics. Curriculums, new or old, are only tools to improve mathematics in the classroom. Those who advocate a more traditional approach have a responsibility to show how they plan to go beyond the failed implementations of the past.

Schools must commit to coherent plans that include establishing learning goals, providing professional development to support teachers in learning more about mathematics and how children learn it, and implementing good assessment tools to evaluate progress. There is no such thing as a low-maintenance mathematics curriculum.

We must not succumb to the fantasy that there is an easy way out. Educators must provide --and parents should demand -- a balanced, rigorous curriculum in which all children, not just those in privileged communities, learn serious mathematics in a serious way -- with understanding.

William McCallum is a professor of mathematics at the University of Arizona. Susan Jo Russell, a mathematics educator at the Education Research Collaborative at TERC, directed the development of the Investigations curriculum.

© 2003 The E-Accountability Foundation