The sum of the evidence

Supporters of traditional math instruction were dealt a blow recently when the What Works Clearinghouse released its evaluation of elementary math curricula. Of the four programs that WWC examined, Everyday Math, a popular course-of-study with progressives, turned out to be the only one that had "potentially positive effects" on student achievement. Saxon Math, the darling of traditionalists, was said to have "no discernible effects." (For a quick introduction to how Everyday Math and Saxon Math differ in their approaches to teaching basic algorithms, see here.)

The findings came at a bad moment, from the traditionalist perspective, because the National Math Panel (NMP), established last April by President Bush, is currently trying to sort out whether the traditional or progressive approach to math instruction is more effective. As with the National Reading Panel a decade earlier, the NMP is supposed to base its conclusions on the "best available scientific evidence."

Problem is, there's very little decent evidence in this field.  And less if you have high standards, like the WWC when deciding which studies deserve consideration. WWC found just four studies upon which to base its assessment of Everyday Math and just one for Saxon Math. And even these have their problems.

That there is little good research on math curricula that work is no news to the NMP, which at its first meeting acknowledged this fact and the challenge that it posed in drawing conclusions. To deal with this, traditionalists have encouraged the panel to consider studies from other countries, too.

At least one ex officio member of the panel, Daniel B. "Dan" Berch, has urged caution in referencing these studies. He remarked at the initial meeting that "simply mapping data taken from other countries onto practices used in the United States [is problematic], since certain procedures can be appropriate in one context, and inappropriate in another."

Yet most panel members appear open to considering international studies. For example, there has been a spirited discussion at NMP events about Singapore Math, a traditional approach that stresses memorization of basic algorithms and developing computational competence at an early age.

The Singapore program is a good model to examine, but it's not the only one. In fact, there's a world of relevant research on math education beyond the Pacific Rim, and much of it points to the effectiveness of traditional math instruction.

Consider Norway. Between 1995 and 2003, its performance on TIMSS (and PISA) plummeted. That produced a lot of hand-wringing, and several interesting reports. Two of these were released in English in abridged form last February (find them here).

While both studies recognize that Norway's problems are multifaceted, both also place significant blame for that nation's math decline squarely on L 97-new national standards that Norway adopted in 1997 that did away with traditional math teaching and fully embraced progressive techniques.

L 97 stresses "learning by doing." And this, the reports' authors write, is the problem, because "‘doing' [becomes] ‘confusion' instead of ‘learning.'"

Other nations to consider are England, Cyprus, and Slovenia, each of which scored a major jump in math performance on TIMSS between 1995 and 2003.

The NMP deserves a lot of credit for pursuing the very best evidence about math education, no matter how far from our nation's shores it must travel to find it. Think globally, act locally.

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