As part of its series of events on math and science education, the Wilson Center, with co-sponsorship by the Department of Education, brought together three members of the National Mathematics Advisory Panel for a discussion of their recent findings, published on March 13, 2008 as "Foundations for Success." Among the speakers were: A. Wade Boykin, Professor and Director of the Graduate program in the Department of Psychology at Howard University, Vern Williams, Mathematics Teacher at Longfellow Middle School in Fairfax, Virginia, and Irma Arispe, Assistant Director for Life Sciences and Acting Assistant Director for Social and Behavioral Sciences in the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) of the Executive Office of the President.

Established under a Presidential Executive Order in 2006, the panel was charged with studying math curricula and teaching methods in order to suggest effective reform. Its 25 diverse members surveyed teachers and reviewed over 16,000 research studies in order to pool knowledge on the best practices in learning processes, curriculum, instruction, teaching, and assessment methods.

Irma Arispe opened the discussion with an outline of the main goals of the Presidential Executive Order. "By reviewing research relating to proven-effective and evidence-based mathematics instruction," the panelists aimed to provide the U.S. President and the Secretary of Education with the optimal methods to advance the teaching and learning of mathematics, with a specific focus on preparation for and success in algebra. A review of written commentary from 160 organizations and individuals and the testimony of 110 individuals were compiled to produce the best available scientific evidence, which was rigorously assessed and categorized to ensure the quality of all data used.

All three speakers emphasized the importance of algebra for entry into college, "a process that will require a consistent, wise, community-wide effort" according to Arispe. In terms of implementation strategies, Vern Williams cited the need to streamline mathematics in grades kindergarten through to 8th grade, a practice demonstrated in other countries that score well on international mathematics assessments. More specifically, students need critical foundations in algebra. Williams commented that, "you wonder where the algebra went" if you consult many of the newer mathematics programs. The way to change this is by creating benchmarks that guide curricula, textbook development, and state assessments.

As well as creating better definitions of "authentic algebra courses," A. Wade Boykin drew attention to the report's findings on learning processes and social aspects affecting students' cognitive abilities. Children from low income families lag behind their peers, in part because children from families with low incomes, low levels of parental education, and single parents often have less mathematical knowledge when they begin school than children from more advantaged backgrounds. Also, Boykin found that the relationship between children's goals and beliefs about learning are strongly related to their mathematics performance. Interestingly, experiential studies have demonstrated that changing children's beliefs from a focus on ability to a focus on effort increases their engagement in mathematics learning, which in turn improves mathematics outcomes. Therefore, teachers and other educational leaders should consistently help students and parents understand that an increased emphasis on the importance of effort is related to improved mathematics grades.

Another component of mathematics performances relates to the education of teachers. Williams found that, "there is research to support the idea that teacher knowledge does have a positive effect on student learning." He emphasized the need for more research on full-time math teachers in elementary schools, particularly on their use of technology as an instructional tool. Also, in terms of materials used by math teachers, it was found that U.S. mathematics textbooks are far too long, which according to Williams, "tends to undermine coherence and focus."

The discussion closed with some recommendations. In particular, Arispe commented that, "the National Assessment of Educational Progress and states should focus on the mathematics that students should learn, with [assessment] scores reported and tracked over time." Also, Boykin reiterated the need to prepare teachers to be better consumers of high-quality research and to apply best practices, noting that "a lot of the [available] research has not yet come to inform practices in math classrooms." Furthermore, he suggested that researchers must consider the world of the teacher – its traditional methodologies and practical challenges – in guiding research, rather than focusing solely on psychological research into student learning.

Drafted by Sarah Eversman

Please see below for the presentation that was given on April 3rd by the National Mathematics Advisory Panel members.

For more information about the panel, and to download their final report, please visit: