What math curriculum actually works?

April 19, 2011

Reading the opinions and rants of various math curricula, I see how hard it can be to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of a given math textbook. Is Saxon better than Everyday Math? What’s the best intervention for pre-K? When someone tells me that my school’s math book is “bad,” should I believe them?

A place to look for real data is here: the US Dept of Ed’s What Works Clearinghouse, which evaluates studies, compiles data, and compares the results. While it’s far from complete–many curricula have never been tested at the scale that the Clearinghouse requires–it gets us out of the muddy territory of personal anecdote and into data driven decision making. To answer our questions:

Is Saxon better than Everyday Math?

No. It looks like the opposite is true. In fact, Everyday Math is one of the few math curricula that seem to have a positive effect on children’s understanding of math. Saxon is mixed, and in the upper grades, seems to be downright negative.

What is the best intervention for Pre-K?

According to the Clearinghouse, the SRA Real Math Building Blocks PreK is the clear winner. If you do a little research into what it’s about, you’ll have ideas for what types of activities work to get 4 year olds on the right track in math. Here’s a quote from some press on the authors:

Douglas H. Clements and Julie Sarama have spent the past decade developing a curriculum that seeks to cultivate young students’ math skills through the types of games, artwork, songs, and puzzles that those children enjoy, as well as through computer software.

When someone tells me that my school’s math book is “bad,”
should I believe them?

Nope. For some reason, math education is one of those areas where even the brightest, normally scientific-minded people get swayed by personal anecdotes and cherry-pick data to suit their own personal needs (like wheresthemath.com promoting a 2009 study that found Saxon and Math Expressions to be more effective than Investigations and Addison-Wesley, then ignoring the updated, much more comprehensive study that found the four curricula not statistically different for first graders (though Saxon does beat out Addison-Wesley in 2nd grade. My cursory reading of the study leads me to be pretty skeptical of Addison-Wesley as a text).

Be skeptical. Doubt the peddlers of magic bullets. Look at the data. These are hard questions, and the decisions ahead about math education are too important to be made from a position of fear and vaguely informed opinions.

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