WMU News

Elementary math reform work to expand to middle school grades

April 30, 1998

KALAMAZOO -- To halt declining mathematics scores that occur as U.S. students progress from fourth grade to high school, Western Michigan University mathematics education experts have expanded a statewide network designed to put revolutionary teaching tools in the hands of teachers.

The Michigan Mathematics Inservice Project, based at WMU, has been awarded $206,535 from the Michigan Department of Education through the federal Eisenhower Higher Education Professional Development Grant Program. The funding will be used to help Michigan middle schools successfully make the transition to new classroom tools intended to boost students' understanding and ability to use mathematics.

Dr. Robert A. Laing and Dr. Ruth Ann Meyer, both WMU professors of mathematics and statistics, direct the statewide project to help schools implement new mathematics programs by using a network of mathematics specialists stationed at existing mathematics and science centers around the state. These specially trained teams will conduct regional programs for districts interested in implementing new mathematics reform programs.

The project began last year using an earlier grant from the state and was designed to help districts implement elementary mathematics reform in Michigan. The new funding will allow expansion of the existing network to include specialists trained in reform programs aimed at the middle school grades.

"These teams will be trained in how to use exemplary programs developed with National Science Foundation funding and tested in classrooms across the country," Laing says. "The programs were designed to conform to standards developed by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics with the support of all of the nation's key mathematical societies."

This year, the project will focus on two new programs: Mathematics in Context, a program for grades five through eight that is published by Encyclopedia Britannica; and Math Thematics, which is designed for grades six through eight and is published by McDougal Littell/Houghton Mifflin. The latter curriculum also is known as the STEM program -- Success Through Exploring Mathematics.

The two are among three national exemplary mathematics programs being considered for implementation by school districts around the state. The third new program, Connected Mathematics published by Dale Seymour, already has a cadre of mathematics specialists trained at Michigan State University to help implement that curriculum.

The programs focus on connecting mathematics to real world applications and are designed for use with all students, regardless of their projected career goals. Mathematical problem solving is constructed around things that children know about and use in everyday life and it is intended to connect mathematics to the rest of the knowledge they are acquiring in school.

"You never hear 'Why do I need to know this?' in classrooms using these new materials," Meyer says. "You cannot observe activity in such a classroom without coming out a believer."

Laing notes that recent information released in Washington, D.C., as a result of the Third International Mathematics and Science Study shows that American elementary students up to the fourth grade have shown improvement in mathematical achievement in recent years. By the end of their high school years, however, U.S. students no longer can compete with students in other developed nations. The new mathematics teaching materials being offered to districts through the project he and Meyer direct are designed to address that trend.

In addition to working with teachers in the project, Laing and Meyer also work with principals and administrators and with university students preparing for teaching careers. The questions about adopting a new mathematics program vary with the audience, they say.

For administrators, program cost and measuring effectiveness are major issues. For teachers, explaining the program to parents is a major concern. Parents often want assurances that such elements as memorization of multiplication tables and drill and practice in computation skills are still part of the curriculum. They also frequently voice their concerns about difficulty in helping their children with unfamiliar homework tasks.

And teachers themselves are often reluctant to change teaching methods when they feel they have become proficient at using those methods over the years. Major changes in teaching style are needed to adjust to a program in which much of the drill and practice material is embedded in real world applications rather than on photocopied practice sheets containing many problems.

Teachers using the reform programs have said that the changes they are witnessing in their classrooms involve higher level thinking skills and enthusiasm for mathematics.

"When teachers or administrators ask 'How do you know this works?'," Laing says, "we remind them that they already know their current program is not working."

Media contact: Cheryl Roland; cheryl.roland@wmich.edu

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