Ithaca College Quarterly  




Math Matters

Ithacaís mathematics department is home to one of the most exciting, innovative programs in the country for helping school districts overhaul math curricula at the high school level. For the past three years, COMPASS, run by math professors Eric COMPASSand Margaret Robinson with the help of their colleague John Maceli, has been pointing the way for schools, teachers, administrators, parent groups, and other community members to improve math opportunities and experiences for their students.

The COMPASS (Curricular Options in Mathematics Programs for All Secondary Students) project began in 1997 with a $3,740,000 National Science Foundation grant to Ithaca College (ICQ, winter 1997). The task for COMPASS was to help school districts better understand how teachers could transform their math offerings and help their students master the standards that had been established in 1989 by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. The grant funded a national implementation center at Ithaca and five satellite centers around the country.

Eric Robinson"Our goal," says Eric Robinson (pictured), the projectís principal investigator, "is to reform KĖ12 math education on a systemic level. Itís a huge undertaking." The five satellite centers have developed innovative new curricula designed to engage students in mathematics in a real-world sense. The Robinsons consult with school districts across the country and advise them on the fine points of choosing the curriculum that will work best for their students.

The project was buoyed last year when two of these curricula, the Interactive Mathematics Program and the Core-Plus Mathematics Project, were chosen by the U.S. Department of Educationís mathematics and science expert panel as "exemplary mathematics curricular programs." Only 10 programs nationally received this coveted recognition. The expert panel pointed out that these programs are explicitly based on the NCTM standards and that after only a short period of time participating students are already showing significant improvement in performance on various standardized mathematics assessments. The panel observed that IMP students "were more confident about their abilities in mathematics, [were] more likely to see mathematics as meeting the needs of society rather than being a set of arbitrary rules, placed higher value on communication in mathematics learning, and were more likely to see mathematics applications in everyday life."

New Curricula Add Up to Success

Building upon the success of the first three years of COMPASS, the NSF announced in July that it would continue to fund the project. Eric Robinson is delighted with the continuing support of the NSF. "The work of COMPASS is critical," he says, "and NSF clearly sees the need for it."

That need comes at a time of "considerable ferment in the secondary math world," according to an evaluation of the initial phase of the COMPASS work by Inverness Research Associates. That study indicates that "the great majority of our nationís high schools will be considering new secondary math curricula over the next five years." Inverness concludes that "COMPASS provides clarity of vision. . . . As district leaders and math educators search for new programs, COMPASS provides a steady voice reiterating the need for change, offering support, and presenting five nationally funded curricula from which to choose."

Given that there are over 11,000 school districts nationwide, attempting to provide leadership to a mathematics curricular reform effort can be a daunting task. As their friends and colleagues in Ithaca know, Eric and Margaret Robinson seem to be on the road more often than not. They work directly with school districts and teachers all over the country, offer workshops, make presentations at conferences and meetings of mathematics teachers, and coordinate the work of creating awareness, building knowledge about the new curricula, facilitating selection among the five model curricula, and supporting district-level implementation.

"Each of these five curricula is a complete, multiyear instructional program, not merely a replacement unit," explains Margaret Robinson. "Each addresses every aspect of classroom instruction, including changes in content, pedagogy, the use of technology, and student assessment strategies. We know from experience that most schools and districts are unable to introduce these programs into their existing system by simply skimming the texts and ordering the student books. Both the magnitude and the complexity of the changes these curricula embody offer challenges."

Eric Robinson points out that "districts that are seriously looking at implementing these new curricula are most receptive to communicating directly with actual curriculum developers ó mathematicians familiar with the curricula and reform, teacher educators, teachers with experience teaching the curriculum, and other experts." Thus, though the COMPASS curricular models have attracted the interest and support of commercial publishers, the most effective outreach has come through working with the mathematicians and teacher educators funded through the project.

With the renewed NSF support COMPASS researchers will be able to continue the work already under way and to expand their work into some new directions. In particular, they are interested in contributing to national mathematics education policy initiatives. The continuation of funding will allow the project to work with the NCTM, the Mathematical Association of America, and the Educational Testing Service on issues like refined math standards and college placement in math and on the development of a more standards-based Scholastic Assessment Test.

COMPASS will also now be able to sponsor a national curriculum showcase for the programs it offers. People interested in the projectís work have been visiting the COMPASS Web site ( at an average rate of 10,000 hits per month. Thatís already a big number ó but itís likely to grow, along with interest in the innovative work of COMPASS.

Photo by Larry Abrams

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