Across nation, varying math education methods tough on students, teachers

Monday, December 4, 2006 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 4:47 p.m. CDT, Saturday, July 19, 2008

When it comes to math, what students are learning and when they learn it varies significantly across the country, according to MU’s Center for the Study of Mathematics Curriculum. According to a recent report by the center, some students learn to add and subtract fractions as early as first grade or as late as sixth grade.

Barbara Reys, an MU professor of mathematics education and director of the center’s project management team, said differences in curriculum from state to state can make it difficult for schools to find textbooks fitting their state’s needs. “Textbooks are developed and marketed nationally,” she said. “You can end up with these very large, 800-page textbooks, and only some of the material is applicable for each state.”

Last week, Reys was awarded the Dr. Lois Knowles Endowed Faculty Fellowship, which comes with a $100,000 donation to the MU College of Education. She plans to use the donation to fund a lecture series on mathematics curricula geared toward the broad educational community and also to support a doctoral student fellowship in elementary mathematics at MU.

Linda Coutts, coordinator of elementary mathematics education for Columbia Public Schools, said that states such as California, Texas and Florida issue lists of approved textbook companies to local districts. Schools that buy books from companies not on the lists don’t receive federal money given to the states for textbooks.

This creates an incentive for textbook companies to cater to the curriculum goals of states who restrict funding to districts who use approved textbooks. “Companies go to states like California, Texas and Florida and say, ‘What are your needs,’ because that’s where you’re going to get the most guaranteed sales,” Coutts said.

This leaves teachers in other states to sift through material, deciding which lessons and exercises to use and in what order. “If your state’s standards don’t match those, a lot of material will be mismatched for each grade level,” Coutts said. “If those schools taught square root exploration in second grade, Columbia would have to say, OK, it’s there but we’re not going to teach it.”

Different curricula among states also causes problems for students who move from one state to another, or even from one district to another in the same state. “Students moving around, which is a common occurrence, lose curriculum coherence,” Reys said.

Coutts said that because of the high numbers of transfer students in the area, the Columbia school district has opted to teach all math concepts in the same order at each school. That way, students who transfer within the district don’t miss anything that had already been taught at the new school but not yet at his or her old school.

But, Coutts said, the district has no control over how math is taught in other states, forcing teachers to help transfer students catch up to their peers.

“It would be nice if we had some consistency across the nation,” she said, “But I don’t think that’s going to happen.”

Columbia Public Schools are currently examining its math curriculum as part of a two-year evaluation cycle, Coutts said. The process is in the first year, and all curriculum is being looked at closely. As the second year of this cycle begins, the district will be setting revised goals and determining areas of focus for learning at each grade level. “Curriculum for Columbia Public Schools is done through a committee process and includes classroom teachers, parents and consultants from the university,” she said.

While the federal government cannot dictate what states teach at each grade level, it can issue assessment tests that cover certain topics at each grade and withhold accreditation and funding if students do not perform satisfactorily. Both Coutts and Reys attribute much of the current study of curriculum to the No Child Left Behind Act passed in 2000.

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