California’s New Math Framework, and the Prospects for a “Science of Math”

Contributing Writer


Is a new, evidence-based approach to math instruction on the horizon? And if so, what are the implications for curriculum and instruction?

In recent years, laws and policies requiring schools to use evidence-based methods for teaching young students how to read, known as the “science of reading,” have been put in place across the country.

It remains uncertain whether policymakers will coalesce around a similar agenda in math, but there is interest in some quarters in making it happen, said Arun Ramanathan, a senior adviser to the CEO of Unbound Ed, which designs professional learning for educators.

There are reasons why policymakers and educators should be wary of rushing into assigning a “science of math” label and pursuing an agenda to the subject, given differences in its research base and in schools’ needs, said Ramanathan and others on the panel. They spoke on day two of the EdWeek Market Brief Summit, a gathering of K-12 business representatives held this week in Phoenix.

The topic of the panel was California’s adoption of a controversial new framework for math instruction, and the implications of those guidelines not just for that state but for others around the country.

“There is no science of math yet,” said Ramanathan, who has worked on curriculum issues in California for years. “The operative word is yet.”

“The winds are blowing that way,” he added.

As of July of this year, thirty-two states and the District of Columbia have passed laws or implemented new policies related to evidence-based reading instruction since 2013, according to an Education Week analysis.

Eric Hirsch, executive director of EdReports, said he’s been surprised by the “sweeping movement” involving the science of reading. But he doesn’t see the same thing happening with math.

Several big issues exist, he said.

The research backing a huge shift in math instruction is lagging in comparison to reading. And advocates who backed the concept of a wholesale shift in literacy instruction came together with a unified voice to “sell the story of the science of reading to easily say there is this deficit, and teachers don’t know how to do this.”

“I don’t know that’s there with math,” Hirsch said.

He highlighted his skepticism about a possible science of math movement by recalling a meeting with state directors of curriculum, in which conversations about the science of reading were met with enthusiasm.

However, when discussion turned to the science of math the tone changed, he said.

“Folks are petrified that some of the balance and rigor that they want — conceptual understanding, application and procedural skills and fluency … that some of those could go away,” said Hirsch, whose nonprofit organization conducts reviews of curriculum for quality.

But Ramanathan said he’s hearing of other dynamics in play in his conversations with statewide education advocacy groups from around the country.  A lot of members of those advocacy groups, he said, are being nudged by lawmakers in states that have put in place science of reading initiatives to do something similar with math.

Will Policy Outpace the Science?

It’s going to take a while for the research supporting the shift in math instruction to be viewed as robust, he said. And the big question moving forward will be “whether the policy gets ahead of the actual science.”

“This is coming,” he said. “It’s not anywhere near the same [as the science of reading] in terms of its research base, but it is going to have implications for the field.”

In California, some school districts are already keeping an eye on how the science of math movement develops, but moving in that direction could be contingent on first putting in place evidence-based teaching methods for reading. California does not have a law or policy requiring schools to teach using the science of reading.

In the Sacramento City Unified School District, a school system of about 40,000 students, officials are “desperately fighting” to bring science of reading into their classrooms, said Mikila Fetzer, director of professional learning.

She said the science of math is a newer concept, and “it feels like something we need to be watching.” However, research in the field is lacking, Fetzer said.

The anticipation is that there will be an increased emphasis in California in the near future on using the science of reading in classrooms.

And once that happens, “the science of math is going to trail behind that in some way,” she said.

Photo from the EdWeek Market Brief Summit in Phoenix by Kaylee Domzalski for Education Week.

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