Curricula that engages students is key to solving nation’s math education problem

As parents are taking advantage of back-to-school sales and stocking up on supplies like calculators, pens and pencils, a math education expert at Washington University in St. Louis suggests they also may want to check out the quality of their children’s math education.

According to the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, among others, the United States continues to lag further behind other developed nations in mathematics education.

“At all levels, (math) curricula should invite students into inquiry and show them
firsthand the power of mathematics in design, modeling and technological advances,”
says Jere Confrey, Ph.D., WUSTL professor of education in Arts & Sciences.
“At all levels, (math) curricula should invite students into inquiry and show them
firsthand the power of mathematics in design, modeling and technological advances,”
says Jere Confrey, Ph.D., WUSTL professor of education in Arts & Sciences.

A critical part of the solution, says Jere Confrey, Ph.D., professor of education in Arts & Sciences at Washington University, is for school districts to select and implement a solid curriculum with interesting, compelling and rigorous mathematics and then to carefully monitor and evaluate students’ progress while using that curriculum.

Confrey chaired the committee that wrote the recently published National Research Council report titled “On Evaluating Curricular Effectiveness: Judging the Quality of K-12 Mathematics Evaluations.”

She says that school districts and school boards are not paying enough attention to the importance of rigorous and scientific evaluation in the use of mathematics curricula. Parents, teachers and school boards, she says, need to demand that school administrators systematically collect and evaluate data on curriculum use and to share those results with them.

“This is part of what is known as ‘instructional leadership,'” says Confrey. “Test results are only the merest indicator of the health of an educational system. They determine if there is a heartbeat, but not if the system is thriving. We must find better ways to determine if instructional practices are inspiring students to continue studying mathematics and if they are providing the know-how to succeed. Testing that is not linked to curricular change is hollow.

“We continue to face some serious problems in mathematics education in this country,” says Confrey. “Solving them is difficult in part because unlike Japan or England, our decision-making around education is not centralized.” Though a regional system has the advantage of permitting local solutions, it makes the need for thorough evaluation even more pressing, she adds.

“Each region must undertake its own review of its approach in a distributed system. If one size does not fit all, then there is a need for more precise methods to measure those differences,” says Confrey.

Furthermore, efforts to strengthen performance in mathematics depend on varied levels of funding, often based on the economic wealth of the different school districts. “In this system, one must always be paying particular attention to the issue of fairness. Are there any sub-groups of students being ignored? Are any being under or over-served at the expense of others?” she questions.

‘Curricula should invite students’

Confrey says that her committee’s report recognized three key and interrelated problems with mathematics education in the United States:

  • 1. Many new curricular approaches demand considerable knowledge of content and its pedagogy from the teaching force and there is no stable means to teach teachers to implement that content.

“We have virtually no regularized professional development system. Participation is voluntary, often insubstantial and not followed-up into classrooms,” says Confrey. “Too often money for this purpose is frittered away on trendy topics and there is not enough focus on content driven curricular improvement. The problem is worse in urban schools with high teacher and student turnover. Adequate funding for an obligatory professional development system would help.”

  • 2. Teachers are not adequately engaging students in the power of mathematics to enrich their lives.

“I think we need to focus on the broader preparation of students — starting young in geometry, numeration and early statistical reasoning — and really show students how those concepts are linked to each other and to the outside world,” she says.

“Too often we promise students if they stick with mathematics long enough they will see its power. This delayed gratification approach loses too many children early in the process. At all levels, curricula should invite students into inquiry and show them firsthand the power of mathematics in design, modeling and technological advances. Persistence and interest are the key elements of student engagement.”

  • 3. While accountability is simply a form of acting responsibly, the current testing system is impoverished and does not provide adequate and valid information to improve classroom practices.

“Without this link to instruction, the current reliance on testing without adequate remediation is simply punitive and leads to test preparation instead of valid, curriculum-driven instruction,” Confrey points out. “Test makers are not being held accountable for the validity, in relation to curricular goals, of their tests. These problems reside disproportionately in poorer rural and urban schools. Because mathematics is a powerful filter to advanced study and economic opportunity, the system ends up being very unfair to the students in the poorer schools.”

Confrey says that careful selection and evaluation of curriculum is key to addressing these problems. “We can obtain better data on school performance by supplementing annual testing with a set of assessments, administered periodically over the school year that validly measure high quality student reasoning and knowledge,” she says.

“The data from this system must be scrutinized for its effects on all subgroups of students and then used to drive obligatory and well-paid professional development in implementing sound curricula. We need to focus this system on continuous improvements at the core of the instructional activity — in the classroom — with high-quality materials. Then these results can be accumulated across settings, but only after those people most closely affected — students, teachers, parents and school boards — know what is happening in their local setting.”