University of Arkansas Office for Education Policy

Math Instruction Time: More is Not Necessarily Better

In The View from the OEP on July 30, 2014 at 10:37 am

mathIf a middle schooler spends more time in math class, will that student become better at math? Not in the long term, according to Eric Taylor’s recent research at Stanford University’s Center for Educational Policy Analysis.

Taylor’s study, Spending More of the School Day in Math Class: Evidence from a Regression Discontinuity in Middle School, examined the effectiveness of additional time spent in math class by using data from Miami-Dade County Public Schools, the fourth largest school district in the U.S. For 6th graders who scored below the 50th percentile the previous year in a 5th grade math test, administrators doubled the number of math classes (students took one regular math class and one remedial class). However, the test scores between those selected for additional classes was sometimes only different by a few points compared to students who were not selected. As Taylor stated, “Think about a kid who scores 249 versus a kid who scores 250 — those kids are not different. But a small difference in scores determined who took two math classes and who took one.” Students in the control group took one regular math class and one elective.

The study found short term benefits: the students who took two math courses scored higher on the state math test that year. However, these gains did not last after students returned to a regular math schedule. One year after treatment ended, only 1/3-1/2 of the initial gain remained. Two years out, effects were at 1/3 of the original size. When the students reached high school, the gains were almost completely gone.

These large gains that diminish over time have often been termed as following a “fade-out pattern.” This phenomenon is common with educational interventions, such as smaller class sizes, summer schools, and assigning students to a more effective teacher. This pattern does not necessarily mean that the interventions did not help students, but that the effects did not last. On the bright side, some studies show that interventions that had fading test score benefits have other long-term benefits, such as Chetty, Friedman, and Rockoff’s study that found the achievement gains from having an effective teacher fade out over time but eventually effect college-going rates and earnings.

foreign languageOne interesting point Taylor makes is that there may be hidden costs associated with assigning a student to an extra math class. Since these students had an elective removed from their schedule, they were less likely to take art, foreign language, or physical education. He also finds that some evidence, though less strong, that students who had a double dose of math were 10 percentage points less likely to have completed two years of foreign languages by the end of high school, often a requirement for admission to selective colleges and universities. In addition, Taylor cites research that found that 5th grade boys who do not take P.E. are at an increased risk of obesity. All of this raises the question: is it worth it to provide students with a double dose of math if the effects eventually fade out and causes them to miss out on other classes that may be helpful to them?

A Contradictory Study?

The research literature on the topic of double-dosing confirms part of the story from Taylor’s study: at least two similar studies of the effect doubling the number of classes in a subject (Nomi and Raudenbush (2013) and Daugherty (2012), found positive short-term results.

Another 2012 study (coauthored by by Kalena Cortes of Texas A&M University, Joshua Goodman of the Harvard Kennedy School, and Takako Nomi of St. Louis University) found just the opposite of Taylor’s findings: that students who received a “double-dose” of 9th grade Algebra in Chicago experienced “positive and substantial” benefits in the long run, but not the short term.

Similar to Taylor’s study, the Cortes et al. study compared students who were just below the cutoff point for being assigned an additional Algebra class with those just above the cutoff. In the short term, the researchers reported that these students did not perform better on the 9th grade Algebra exam as hoped. However, when researchers measured the effect of the additional Algebra intervention over time, they found several long-term benefits to students, such as better performance on college-entrance exams like the ACT, increased high school graduation rates, and increased college-enrollment rates. These researchers conclude, “A successful early intervention may be the best way to boost students’ long-term academic success.”

How prevalent is double-dosing? Does this happen in Arkansas?

The most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) results label 2/3 of American students ages 14-15 as “not proficient” in math. In light of these statistics, we know that the U.S. has a high proportion of students who lack foundational math skills. According to the Cortes, Goodman, and Nomi, nearly half of large urban districts report “double-dose” math instruction as the common way to support struggling math students.

reading_recovery_logoSo, what about Arkansas? We at the OEP are not aware of a formal policy across the state or in specific districts that leads to “double-dosing.” Arguably, Reading Recovery is a program connected to “double dosing” 1st graders with 30 minutes of extra, one-on-one reading instruction with a trained teacher. According to  What Works Clearinghouse (WWC), most research has  found Reading Recovery to be effective, having positive effects on general reading achievement and potentially positive effects on alphabetics, reading fluency, and comprehension for beginning readers. In February 2014, Little Rock School District announced that they were scrapping their Reading Recovery program, which had been in operation since 1995. Many Little Rock parents were upset about this program being cut and started a petition to keep it, which generated over 1,500 signatures. In March 2014, Superintendent Dr. Dexter Suggs announced at a Little Rock School Board meeting that elementary schools may keep the Reading Recovery program, but the decision is left up to principals and the funds must come from Title 1, NSLA (National School Lunch Act), or grant funding.

While in this case the research literature does not give us a definitive answer on the value of “double-dosing,” it does bring up some questions that district and school administrators should ask before adopting a new program:

  • What is the evidence on the effectiveness of this program?
  • Is this program likely to have a long-term effect as well as a short-term effect?
  • What positive classes or activities may students miss out on by participating in this program?
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