Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Will damning studies reform the reformers?

Catherine Johnson recently posted on Kitchentablemath some excerpts of the first major study of the longitudinal effects of Reform Math. Published in the August 2014 issue of Economics of Education Review, this study examined the effects of the province-wide imposition of Reform Math in schools throughout Quebec in the early 2000's. Its main points, which should be circulated as far and as wide as possible, include the following:

1.  Before the reforms began:

the performance of students in the province of Quebec was comparable to that of students from the top performing countries in international assessments.
2. The reform program:
relied on a socio-constructivist teaching approach focused on problem-based and self-directed learning. This approach mainly moved teaching away from the traditional/academic approaches of memorization, repetitions and activity books, to a much more comprehensive approach focused on learning in a contextual setting in which children are expected to find answers for themselves.
More specifically, the teaching approach promoted by the Quebec reform is comparable to the reform-oriented teaching approach in the United States... supported by leading organizations such as the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, the National Research Council, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
[The] approach was designed to enable students to "find answers to questions arising out of everyday experience, to develop a personal and social value system, and to adopt responsible and increasingly autonomous behaviors."
In the classroom, students were expected to be more actively involved in their own learning and take responsibility for it. Critical to this aspect was the need to relate their learning activities to their prior knowledge and transfer their newly acquired knowledge to new situations in their daily lives. "Instead of passively listening to teachers, students will take in active, hands-on learning. They will spend more time working on projects, doing research and solving problems based on their areas of interest and their concerns. They will more often take part in workshops or team learning to develop a broad range of competencies." (MELS, 1999).
3. Within Quebec province, reform was universal and uniform:
Whether private or public, English speaking or French speaking, all schools across the province were mandated to follow the reform according to the implementation schedule. This implies that all children in Quebec were treated according to same timeline, and that parents were not able to self-select their children into or out of the reform, except by moving out of the province which they did not.
4. Summary results:
We find strong evidence of negative effects of the reform on the development of students’ mathematical abilities. More specifically, using the changes-in-changes estimator, we show that the impact of the reform increases with exposure, and that it impacts negatively students at all points on the skills distribution.
So here's my question: how will American Reform Math advocates respond if/when presented with this article? Will they:

a. attribute the results in Quebec to "poor implementation"?
b. attribute the results in Quebec to cultural differences between Quebecois students and U.S. students?
c. say "That's interesting but there are plenty of studies that support Reform Math," and then quickly forget about this one?
d. transfer their newly acquired knowledge to new situations in their daily lives and reconsider their support for Reform Math?


R. Craigen said...

In answer to your questions, maybe this means that reformers don't really believe in discovery learning. After all, they tried this, we discovered it didn't work ... and they didn't learn.

Anonymous said...

There might be an opportunity for that discussion about this study in the comments section:

I'm very interested in hearing the author's perspective (she was a past president of a National Council of Math Teachers).