A Mathematical Mystery

My colleagues and I wrote a review of research on elementary mathematics (Pellegrini, Lake, Inns, & Slavin, 2018). I’ve written about it before, but I wanted to hone in on one extraordinary set of findings.

In the review, there were 12 studies that evaluated programs that focused on providing professional development for elementary teachers of mathematics content and mathematics –-specific pedagogy. I was sure that this category would find positive effects on student achievement, but it did not. The most remarkable (and depressing) finding involved the huge year-long Intel study in which 80 teachers received 90 hours of very high-quality in-service during the summer, followed by an additional 13 hours of group discussions of videos of the participants’ class lessons. Teachers using this program were compared to 85 control teachers. After all this, students in the Intel classes scored slightly worse than controls on standardized measures (Garet et al., 2016).

If the Intel study were the only disappointment, one might look for flaws in their approach or their evaluation design or other things specific to that study. But as I noted earlier, all 12 of the studies of this kind failed to find positive effects, and the mean effect size was only +0.04 (n.s.).

Lest anyone jump to the conclusion that nothing works in elementary mathematics, I would point out that this is not the case. The most impactful category was tutoring programs, so that’s a special case. But the second most impactful category had many features in common with professional development focused on mathematics content and pedagogy, but had an average effect size of +0.25. This category consisted of programs focused on classroom management and motivation: Cooperative learning, classroom management strategies using group contingencies, and programs focusing on social emotional learning.

So there are successful strategies in elementary mathematics, and they all provided a lot of professional development. Yet programs for mathematics content and pedagogy, all of which also provided a lot of professional development, did not show positive effects in high-quality evaluations.

I have some ideas about what may be going on here, but I advance them cautiously, as I am not certain about them.

The theory of action behind professional development focused on mathematics content and pedagogy assumes that elementary teachers have gaps in their understanding of mathematics content and mathematics-specific pedagogy. But perhaps whatever gaps they have are not so important. Here is one example. Leading mathematics educators today take a very strong view that fractions should never be taught using pizza slices, but only using number lines. The idea is that pizza slices are limited to certain fractional concepts, while number lines are more inclusive of all uses of fractions. I can understand and, in concept, support this distinction. But how much difference does it make? Students who are learning fractions can probably be divided into three pizza slices. One slice represents students who understand fractions very well, however they are presented, and another slice consists of students who have no earthly idea about fractions. The third slice consists of students who could have learned fractions if it were taught with number lines but not pizzas. The relative sizes of these slices vary, but I’d guess the third slice is the smallest. Whatever it is, the number of students whose success depends on fractions vs. number lines is unlikely to be large enough to shift the whole group mean very much, and that is what is reported in evaluations of mathematics approaches. For example, if the “already got it” slice is one third of all students, and the “probably won’t get it” slice is also one third, the slice consisting of students who might get the concept one way but not the other is also one third. If the effect size for the middle slice were as high as an improbable +0.20, the average for all students would be less than +0.07, averaging across the whole pizza.

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A related possibility relates to teachers’ knowledge. Assume that one slice of teachers already knows a lot of the content before the training. Another slice is not going to learn or use it. The third slice, those who did not know the content before but will use it effectively after training, is the only slice likely to show a benefit, but this benefit will be swamped by the zero effects for the teachers who already knew the content and those who will not learn or use it.

If teachers are standing at the front of the class explaining mathematical concepts, such as proportions, a certain proportion of students are learning the content very well and a certain proportion are bored, terrified, or just not getting it. It’s hard to imagine that the successful students are gaining much from a change of content or pedagogy, and only a small proportion of the unsuccessful students will all of a sudden understand what they did not understand before, just because it is explained better. But imagine that instead of only changing content, the teacher adopts cooperative learning. Now the students are having a lot of fun working with peers. Struggling students have an opportunity to ask for explanations and help in a less threatening environment, and they get a chance to see and ultimately absorb how their more capable teammates approach and solve difficult problems. The already high-achieving students may become even higher achieving, because as every teacher knows, explanation helps the explainer as much as the student receiving the explanation.

The point I am making is that the findings of our mathematics review may reinforce a general lesson we take away from all of our reviews: Subtle treatments produce subtle (i.e., small) impacts. Students quickly establish themselves as high or average or low achievers, after which time it is difficult to fundamentally change their motivations and approaches to learning. Making modest changes in content or pedagogy may not be enough to make much difference for most students. Instead, dramatically changing motivation, providing peer assistance, and making mathematics more fun and rewarding, seems more likely to make a significant change in learning than making subtle changes in content or pedagogy. That is certainly what we have found in systematic reviews of elementary mathematics and elementary and secondary reading.

Whatever the student outcomes are compared to controls, there may be good reason to improve mathematics content and pedagogy. But if we are trying to improve achievement for all students, the whole pizza, we need to use methods that make a more profound impact on all students. And that is true any way you slice it.

References

Garet, M. S., Heppen, J. B., Walters, K., Parkinson, J., Smith, T. M., Song, M., & Borman, G. D. (2016). Focusing on mathematical knowledge: The impact of content-intensive teacher professional development (NCEE 2016-4010). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education.

Pellegrini, M., Inns, A., Lake, C., & Slavin, R. E. (2018). Effective programs in elementary mathematics: A best-evidence synthesis. Paper presented at the Society for Research on Effective Education, Washington, DC.

This blog was developed with support from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the Foundation.

 

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