Amalgamated Math

An integrated approach to our nation’s math-skills deficit.

Since 1995 there have been five iterations of the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, or TIMSS, a research tool administered by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement that seeks to assess the mathematics and science abilities of fourth- and eighth-graders in more than 50 countries.

The latest TIMSS evaluation took place in 2011. For American educators, the results were something of a mixed bag. As in previous studies, TIMSS testing indicated U.S. fourth graders did well when compared to their international peers, scoring in the top 10 in both science and math. But eighth graders, again in a pattern that repeated previous TIMSS findings, scored near the middle of the pack.

These results, while not conclusive, suggest that as students advance they become progressively less successful in math and science. By the time they reach their sophomore year of high school, in fact, new testing data from the Programme for International Student Assessment, or PISA, indicate that American pupils rank 26th in math skills among the 34 member nations of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.

What is to be done? Perhaps it’s time to try a new approach to mathematics education, say a pair of prominent MU researchers.

James Tarr, a professor of education at MU and Doug Grouws, an MU professor emeritus, studied more than 3,000 U.S. high school students to determine the effects of using of an “integrated” mathematics curriculum versus a more traditional way of organizing course content.

Integrated mathematics combines important math topics, such as algebra, geometry and statistics, into a single course of study. It’s used by a number of advanced countries around the world, including many that outperform the United States in standardized testing. Instructors using traditional mathematics curricula usually organize content into discrete yearlong courses, so that a ninth-grade student may take Algebra I, followed by Geometry, then Algebra II and perhaps a pre-Calculus course.

With support from a 2.3 million dollar National Science Foundation grant, Tarr and Grouws studied student learning in both types of programs. Testing involved, first, controlling for differences in curriculum implementation and teacher and student attributes, then comparing the scores of the two groups on standardized exams. The results, Tarr and Grouws determined, showed that students in integrated mathematics programs did significantly better than those in traditionally structured classes.

For some teachers, Tarr says, the findings may be a bit unsettling. “Many educators in America have strong views that a more traditional approach to math education is the best way to educate high school students. Results of our study simply do not support such impassioned views, especially when discussing high-achieving students. We found students with higher prior achievement scores benefitted more from the integrated mathematics program than students who studied from the traditional curriculum.”

Whether everyone’s on board or not, Tarr adds, it is essential that our nation’s schools aggressively explore new approaches to math and science education.

“Many countries that the U.S. competes with economically are outpacing us in many fields, particularly in mathematics and science,” says Tarr. “It is crucial that we re-evaluate our school mathematics curricula and how it is implemented if we hope to remain competitive on a global stage.”

Results from the study were published in the Journal for Research in Mathematics Education.

Student holding head as symbols and numbers swirl above

Illustration by Blake Dinsdale

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