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‘Fuzzy’ Math, Concrete Gains?

Recent gains by U.S. students on an international-comparison test show that the much-maligned “reform math” is in fact working, a middle school math teacher writes in an opinion piece published in The Seattle Times.

Seattle educator Michael Sparks notes that so-called “discovery-based” math programs, oriented around guided investigation and interaction, emerged in the mid-1990s in response to the “Third World-level” performance of U.S. students on international tests. Despite an “endless stream” of commentary criticizing the “fuzziness” of such programs, Sparks writes, recent data suggests they are dramatically improving students’ traditional math skills.

On the 2007 Trends in International Math and Science Study, he writes, U.S. 8th graders scored 9th among 45 nations tested—up from 28th place in 1995. In real statistical terms, only five countries, all Asian, scored significantly higher on the 2007 test than the U.S.—a gap that Sparks contends is “better explained by equally wide social and cultural differences than by curricular tendencies.”

Sparks acknowledges the legitimate “instructional concerns” of opponents of reform math. “All things considered, however,” he writes, “the critics have failed to fully engage, discern, understand, and appreciate the value and marvelous qualities and outcomes of [discovery-based] programs … when done well.”

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