Math instruction trumps math curricula in boosting achievement, study says

KindergartenSaxon Math, Everyday Mathematics, Think Math!, enVisionMATH, SRA Real Math. Many schools spend months poring over textbooks looking for the right curriculum to boost the math achievement of their elementary students. But, a recent study in the Review of Educational Research concludes that the type of instruction used has a much bigger impact on math achievement than the choice of textbook or curriculum.

Two Johns Hopkins University researchers reviewed 87 studies on improving elementary math achievement using one of three approaches–math curricula, computer-assisted instruction (CAI) or instructional process programs. The biggest gains in achievement were reported in studies on the use of instructional process strategies such as cooperative learning and motivation and classroom management.

“The debate about mathematics reform has focused primarily on curriculum, not on professional development or instruction,” write Robert Slavin and Cynthia Lake. “Yet this review suggests that in terms of outcomes on traditional measures, such as standardized tests and state accountability assessments, curriculum differences appear to be less consequential than instructional differences are.”

Computer-assisted instruction (CAI) also showed more benefits than changes in curricula, the authors report. Although the benefits from CAI were modest, the authors said the evidence of improvement is important given that CAI is typically used for only about 30 minutes 3 times a week or less.

The strongest evidence of effectiveness was found for the following 5 instructional process programs, 4 of which are cooperative learning programs:

  • Classwide Peer Tutoring
  • PALS (Peer-Assisted Learning Strategies)
  • STAD (Student Teams-Achievement Divisions)
  • TAI Math (Team-Accelerated Instruction)
  • Missouri Mathematics Project (a classroom management and motivation model)

The researchers found moderate evidence to support increased achievement with the following interventions, most of which also fall into the instructional process category:

  • Classworks (CAI)
  • Cognitively Guided Instruction
  • Connecting Math Concepts (curriculum as well as instructional)
  • Consistency Management & Cooperative Discipline
  • Project SEED
  • Small-group tutoring

“The most striking conclusion from the review…is the evidence supporting various instructional process strategies,” the researchers write. “Twenty randomized experiments and randomized quasi-experiments found impressive effects (median ES[effect size]=+0.33) for programs that target teachers’ instructional behaviors rather than math content alone.”

To be included in the researchers’ review, studies had to meet the following criteria:

  • involved elementary children (K-5-6)
  • used controls
  • used random assignment of students or matching with appropriate adjustments for any pretest differences
  • were carried out for at least 12 weeks.

A total of 87 studies met the criteria. The researchers did a best-evidence synthesis, which not only applies consistent standards across all studies but also discusses each qualifying study. Researchers discussed in detail the research limitations of even the selected studies, citing a need for more quality studies.

“Across all topics, the most important conclusion is that there are fewer high-quality studies than one would wish for,” the researchers write. “…..Clearly, more randomized evaluations of programs used on a significant scale over a year or more are needed.”

Quality research is particularly lacking in the area of textbook/curriculum, even on reform-oriented programs supported by the National Science Foundation such as Everyday Mathematics, the researchers wrote. More and more schools have adopted one of the programs developed under NSF funding.

“Yet, experimental control evaluations of these and other curricula that meet the most minimal standards of methodological quality are very few…..The evidence for the impacts of all of the curricula on standardized tests is thin.” However, they add that these programs might have positive effects on problem-solving or on concepts and applications.

“Evidence supporting Saxon Math, the very traditional, algorithmically focused curriculum that is the polar opposite of the NSF-supported models, was lacking,” they write.

“More research is needed on all of these programs, but the evidence to date suggests a surprising conclusion that despite all the heated debates about the content of mathematics, there is limited high-quality evidence supporting differential effects of different math curricula,” the researchers conclude.


“Effective Programs in Elementary Mathematics: A Best-Evidence Synthesis,” by Robert Slavin and Cynthia Lake, Review of Educational Research, September 2008, Volume 78, Number 3, pp. 427-515.

Published in ERN February 2009 Volume 22, Number 2

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