National Math Panel Unveils Draft Report

Sean Cavanagh:

Students’ success in mathematics, and algebra specifically, hinges largely on their mastering a focused, clearly defined set of topics in that subject in early grades, the draft report of a federal panel concludes.
The long-awaited report of the National Mathematics Advisory Panel is still very much in flux. Members of the White House-commissioned group staged their 10th, and what was supposed to be their final, meeting in a hotel here Nov. 28, though they indicated that numerous revisions to the document are yet to come.
The panel spent most of a day debating and rewriting a 68-page draft of the report. The draft makes recommendations and findings on curricular content, learning processes, training and evaluation of teachers, instructional practices, assessment, and research as those topics apply to math in grades pre-K through 8.
“International and domestic comparisons show that American students have not been succeeding in the mathematical part of their education at anything like a leadership level,” the report says. “Particularly disturbing is the consistent finding that American students achieve in mathematics progressively more poorly at higher grades.”
The 19-member panel has reviewed an estimated 18,000 research documents and reports as part of its work, which began in 2006. But its draft document also bemoans the paucity of available research in several areas of math—including instruction and teacher training. Government needs to do more, it says, to support research with “large enough samples of students, classrooms, teachers, and schools to identify reliable effects.”
The draft attempts to define the core features of a legitimate school algebra course as opposed to one, the panelists said, that presents watered-down math under that course title. Topics in an algebra course should include concepts such as symbols and expressions, functions, quadratic relations, and others, it notes.
The working report also spells out specific concepts in math that are too often neglected in pre-K through grade 8 math instruction generally, such as fractions, whole numbers, and particular elements of geometry and measurement.
“We don’t spend enough time on them and we don’t assess them,” panel member Camilla Persson Benbow, an educational psychologist at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., said of fractions. “[They’re] really not well mastered by schoolchildren.”
In arguing in behalf of a more focused curriculum in elementary and middle schools, the panel lists several “benchmarks for critical foundations” in prekindergarten through 8th grade math, leading to algebra. The goal is to develop fluency with fractions, whole numbers, and other topics. The panel drew from a diverse assortment of documents, including the 2006 “Curriculum Focal Points,” published by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, as well as Singapore’s national standards and a number of U.S. state math standards.

National Mathematics Advisory Panel Website