Interactive Math Makes For Active Learning in Philadelphia

October 20, 1996

Students who might not be expected to perform well in mathematics are beating the odds in the Philadelphia public schools -- passing challenging courses at rates 20 to 30 percent higher than their peers -- using materials developed with support from the National Science Foundation (NSF).

The successes are particularly striking at Ben Franklin High School, a typical inner city school where 62 percent of the 9th grade students enrolled in the Interactive Mathematics Program (IMP) passed math. The passing rate for students in traditional math courses hovers at 40 percent. Nearly 84 percent of the IMP students passed science as compared to 52 percent of other students.

Luther S. Williams, the head of NSF's education and human resources directorate, said the IMP results prove that the U.S. can achieve the national education goal of global preeminence in math and science despite U.S. students' middling performance on the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS).

A variety of education reform projects supported by the NSF, he pointed out, include a body of materials to effectively teach sophisticated math and science to students at all grade levels, regardless of their race or economic background.

But, Williams added, the IMP findings also confirm NSF's belief that effective education reform -- based on national standards for math and science teaching -- requires a national consensus on the goals of math and science education. NSF also believes that the U.S. educational system is a uniquely decentralized one when compared to other nations in the TIMSS study so the impetus to change must come from the state and local level.

"Simply put," Williams said, "the existence of exemplary and effective materials alone will not improve the odds of better practices and more learning by all students. The decision to use those materials rests with state and local educators."

The success of the IMP materials in Philadelphia is especially encouraging in light of the data contained in Pursuing Excellence, which reports that U.S. math teaching generally is devoid of challenging content. U.S. students perform at, rather than above, the international average in such mathematically dependent subjects as chemistry and physics.

Demonstrating a strong compatibility with the "best practices" of high-achieving nations in the TIMSS study, the IMP materials are designed to eliminate tracking, or the assignment of students to courses on the basis of perceived abilities. IMP materials change the way that math is taught so that in any given school year students may concurrently learn concepts from geometry, algebra, trigonometry, and discrete mathematics.

The IMP materials also develop a range of skills in various areas of math, including how to use math to communicate and how to use computers and graphing calculators -- handheld devices put the calculating and graphical power of an early microcomputer into a student's hands -- as mathematical tools.

Although designed primarily to improve math and science education, IMP instruction also appears to have a broader ripple effect on overall academic success, with 74 percent of the IMP students passing English, according to officials in Philadelphia, as compared with 52 percent of the students who take traditional math.
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National Science Foundation

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