Questioning what's behind the numbers

The Education Beat

Improvement: American students have made greater gains in math than reading, attributed in part to advocacy among math educators - and more funding.

April 15, 2001|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

THE GOOD NEWS emerging last week from an analysis of national test scores in the 1990s is that the states are making real progress in mathematics - so much progress, in fact, that reading scores are starting to look anemic by comparison.

Trend lines in the National Assessment of Educational Progress tell the tale. Between 1990 and 1996, the average student achievement scores in eighth-grade math improved in 28 of 32 states, and none declined. Meanwhile, in fourth-grade reading from 1992 to 1998, only seven of 32 states improved their scores, and scores in four states declined.

This is not to say that American schools are turning out math geniuses and reading dolts. In international comparisons, American kids have mediocre scores in both disciplines, and have a long journey to respectability.

But a good question is why our kids appear to be improving in math and going nowhere in reading. I put the question to several experts, and the answer is surprisingly simple:

The mathematicians got their act together, got it together earlier and targeted lots of federal money for math instruction.

John Thorpe, executive director of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, points out that the mathematics "community" led the way in the so-called "standards movement." The Reston, Va.-based professional organization of math teachers agreed on a set of curriculum standards 12 years ago. The standards have been updated regularly, and a year ago the NCTM published a document examining the effects of new technology on the teaching of math.

As long ago as 1980, the NCTM adopted an eight-point "agenda for action" for that coming decade.

"There is no such thing as a national curriculum in the U.S.," Thorpe says, "but if you put a bunch of math teachers in a room, they're likely to agree on the major points."

The math people also have done considerable work on what constitutes good mathematics teaching and effective assessment.

What of the reading "community?"

In the first place, there isn't a cohesive reading community, and reading experts find it hard to agree on an agenda for action. The field is replete with instructional fads that have no research data to back them up.

Christopher Cross, president of the Council for Basic Education and a former president of the Maryland state school board, has this to say about the status of reading instruction in the United States:

"It is a crime that even though we have scientifically proven methods for teaching reading, [they] almost never [make] it into the classrooms of the students who need them the most. Unfortunately, this phenomenon is not surprising, because information on reading instruction has not even reached many teacher education programs."

Mathematics also has been helped by a steady stream of financial support from the National Science Foundation. During the 1990s, the NSF pumped about $2 billion into elementary and secondary math and science, about $200 per teacher per year. One of the NSF's programs, known as the Urban Systemic Initiative, helped train thousands of big-city teachers, in Baltimore and elsewhere.

There is nothing comparable in reading. A small amount of federal money is available now under the Reading Excellence Act, and President Bush wants to spend $5 billion over five years in his Reading First initiative. (Maryland would get $13 million the first year in Bush's 2002 education budget.)

Of course, money for reading programs is available through Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the government's compensatory program for high-poverty schools. Title I has enabled rapid expansion of such reading programs as the Towson-based Success for All, but reading has to compete with many other interests at the Title I feeding trough. NSF math and science programs are much more clearly focused.

In short, reading gets a pittance in federal aid, and the amount budgeted for reading research is so small as to be almost off the radar screen. It might be that the teaching of math is easier than the teaching of reading. (In most elementary schools, remember, the same teacher does both.)

That's what G. Reid Lyon, director of reading research for the National Institutes of Health, believes. He's not being critical of math, but only pointing out that the teaching of reading is rocket science, and the number of teachers who understand it thoroughly is shockingly small.

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