After Two Years, Three Widely Used Elementary Math Curricula Outperform a Fourth

After Two Years, Three Widely Used Elementary Math Curricula Outperform a Fourth

Effective Approaches Exist Among the Various Types Examined
Sep 30, 2013

Most elementary schools use curricula for math instruction. When choosing among the various curricular approaches that exist, educators often focus on selecting a program that will help students learn and understand mathematics and offer an instructional approach that fits their context and teaching style. Mathematica Policy Research has been conducting a large-scale rigorous study for the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences (IES) that can help educators choose an elementary math curriculum by shedding light on how different programs affect students’ math achievement in the early grades.

New findings from the evaluation update previous findings by showing how the study’s four math curricula affect students’ achievement across two years—from 1st through 2nd grades. The four programs, which are widely used by elementary schools in the United States, include (1) Investigations in Number, Data, and Space (Investigations); (2) Math Expressions; (3) Saxon Math (Saxon); and (4) Scott Foresman-Addison Wesley Mathematics (SFAW), which the developer revised and renamed enVision Math (enVision) during the study. (Brief descriptions of curricula.)

The new findings are summarized in a brief and show the following:

  • Math Expressions, Saxon, and SFAW/enVision improved 1st-through-2nd-grade math achievement by similar amounts, and all three outperformed Investigations.
  • As shown in previous study reports, results by the end of 1st grade favored Math Expressions and Saxon.
  • Therefore, by the end of 2nd grade, SFAW/enVision students caught up to Math Expressions and Saxon students, whereas Investigations students continued to lag behind Math Expressions and Saxon students.

“These findings show that some curricula are more effective than others and, therefore, curriculum can be an effective policy lever for improving math achievement in the early grades,” says Roberto Agodini, senior economist at Mathematica, who served as the study’s director and principal investigator. “Educators may also be interested to know that the more effective curricula differ in their approaches to instruction and learning, so educators can choose the program that best suits their teaching style.”

View fact sheet on curricula effects.

In addition, the study examined how switching curricula affects student achievement during the first year a new curriculum is used. The findings suggest that switching between some of the study’s curricula does not harm student achievement and might even be beneficial. However, the study could examine only the effects of switching away from Saxon and SFAW, so it would be useful for future studies to examine the effects of switching from other curricula to provide educators with a better understanding of the implications of adopting a new curriculum.

Study Design and Implementation

The IES study, conducted by Mathematica and its subcontractor SRI International, is the largest to use an experimental design to study a variety of math curricula. The study enrolled 111 schools from 12 districts that agreed to participate for at least one year. Of the 111 schools, 58 agreed to participate for two years; the new findings summarized in the brief are based on the 58 schools (from 7 districts) that participated for two years.

The research team that produced this brief, “After Two Years, Three Elementary Math Curricula Outperform a Fourth,” randomly assigned the four curricula to the participating schools in each study district. Though not a representative sample of all elementary schools in the United States, the 58 schools included in these analyses are dispersed geographically and in areas with various levels of urbanicity. The participating schools also serve a higher percentage of students eligible for free or reduced-price meals than the average U.S. elementary school. All teachers received training from the publishers and used their assigned curriculum throughout the school.

About Mathematica: Mathematica Policy Research, a nonpartisan research firm, provides a full range of research and data collection services, including program evaluation and policy research, survey design and data collection, research assessment and interpretation, and program performance/data management, to improve public well-being. Its clients include federal and state governments, foundations, and private-sector and international organizations. The employee-owned company, with offices in Princeton, N.J.; Ann Arbor, Mich.; Cambridge, Mass.; Chicago, Ill.; Oakland, Calif.; and Washington, D.C., has conducted some of the most important studies of education, disability, health care, family support, employment, nutrition, and early childhood policies and programs.