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Education Reporter

Algebra is the Key to Math Success
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In March, the National Math Advisory Panel (NMAP) is expected to report to President Bush and Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings on the panel's findings from the past two years. The NMAP has traveled across the country to assess the state of math education and what can be done to improve it. (See Education Reporter, November 2007) The NMAP's new report looks at curriculum, teacher training, assessment, and the latest research.

Dr. Sandra Stotsky, a member of the NMAP, recently reminded an audience in St. Louis that we cannot outsource national defense and national security to the nations around the world that currently produce many more students proficient in mathematics than the United States does. In the interest of national security, said Stotsky, we need "a sound K-12 math curriculum; and the keystone to such a curriculum is competence in school algebra."

"Algebra is the gateway to more advanced mathematics coursework in high school, and to technical proficiency in any field, whether the high school graduate goes directly into the workforce, into some form of post-secondary ed, or into the military. What authentic school algebra consists of, what students need to know in order to study it, how it should be learned and when it should be learned are at the heart of the math wars," she said. According to Stotsky, other issues and debates in the math wars have distracted attention from the real issue in K-12 math curriculum: preparing students in elementary and middle school for Algebra I, and making them mathematically literate through what they learn in algebra.

Stotsky identified several problems that hold American students back in their preparation for algebra. Since the 1960s, education policymakers have focused almost exclusively on low-performing students. Partly to motivate those students and partly in response to social and ideological ferment in education schools, teachers across America adopted small-group work, "real-world problem-solving," calculator use in early grades, and student-invented algorithms. There is no evidence that any of these strategies motivate low-performing students or help them to learn math.

Even when A Nation at Risk was published, in 1983, too few teachers left education schools with a solid understanding of math or the ability to teach it well. Already, too many teachers came from the bottom quarter of their graduating college and even high school classes. From the 1980s onward, more and more teachers left education school ill-prepared to teach math, and cherishing an antipathy toward teaching basic skills and toward teacher-directed instruction.

According to Stotsky, providing "math coaches" for teachers and spending money on professional development in math, two popular strategies to improve math instruction, are unsupported by research and most likely a waste of tax dollars. The NMAP instead recommends the development of more alternative routes to credential mathematically knowledgeable people to teach math in the public schools. "We are not going to get the teachers we need for math and science from traditional teacher preparation programs," said Stotsky. "But there are other ways to get mathematically or scientifically knowledgeable people. Sometimes they are mid-career changers; sometimes after majoring in math or science they have decided they want to teach. There must be district-based programs that give them a little bit of preparation and get them into the schools without going through a traditional preparation program."

All of the high-achieving nations in math focus heavily on basic arithmetic, especially in the early grades. "Mathematicians are asking for the restoration of the centrality of arithmetic, because particularly the study of fractions they see as basic to learning algebra. . . . What has not been prominent in the curriculum is the teaching and learning of fractions, whether you're dealing with decimals, percentages, or other ways of teaching fractions," said Stotsky. The NMAP report devotes a section to fractions and calls for renewed attention to this important area of math.

Current elementary curricula pay far more attention to geometry and probability than the NMAP believes they should. Many focus heavily on patterns, which NMAP mathematicians say have little to do with learning math. Instead, children need to focus on basic arithmetic in the lower grades, so that they can succeed in algebra, and then learn geometry and probability later. The report also criticizes early calculator use and invented algorithms. It calls for math curricula to embrace a coherent progression of skills, rather than project-based learning or small-group work, neither of which research supports as math learning strategies.

The NMAP hopes that in response to the forthcoming report, Congress as well as state decision-makers will choose to approve funding only for elementary textbooks that stress basic arithmetic instead of patterns and data analysis. The report also recommends limiting funds to textbooks that "teach traditional algorithms as well as student understanding of them, and expect math facts to be learned with immediate recall," says Stotsky. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings says she is "very excited" to hear what the NMAP has to say.

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