Achievement Effects of Four Early Elementary School Math Curricula: Findings from First Graders in 39 Schools

Roberto Agodini, Barbara Harris, Sally Atkins-Burnett, Sheila Heaviside, and Timothy Novak
Mathematica Policy Research for Institute of Education Sciences
February 2009

If you're looking for a truce in the math wars, this study is not it. It is, however, a rigorous, in-depth review of four widely used K-2 math curricula. (If that seems small, take it in context: seven math curricula make up 91 percent of all that are used in K-2 nationally.) It's an experimental study in which 39 schools in four states were randomly assigned to one of four math curricula. Achievement data were collected from over 1,300 first grade students and analyzed using a rigorous statistical technique known as hierarchical linear modeling. The study found that students taught with Saxon Math (published by Saxon) and Math Expressions (published by Houghton-Mifflin) performed significantly better than those taught with Investigations (published by Pearson Scott Foresman) and Scott Foresman-Addison Wesley Mathematics (also published by Pearson Scott Foresman). Since all four curricula are to some extent a combination of student-centered constructivist and traditional teacher-centered approaches, no faction is this battle emerges a clear winner. Saxon math, however, is lauded by most traditionalists as the "Open Court" of math, and used in plenty of Catholic schools. On the other hand, the most constructivist math program of the four, Investigations, had the poorest results; this curriculum is described in the report as a "student-centered approach" that "focus[es] on understanding rather than ‘correct answers,'" and in which students "frequently create their own representations." This is only the first year of the multi-year study, so these results are preliminary. But if the next round (to include 110 schools and additional grade levels) shows similar results for constructivist elementary math curricula, let's hope that users of such approaches to teaching create something of their own too: an exit strategy. Find the report here.

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