Personal Perspectives on the Report of the National Mathematics Advisory Panel: What Does Psychological Science Have to Do With It? Plenty!

When I moved to Washington DC in 2001 to help start a new federal research agency, I could not have imagined the changes that would ensue in educational research or, as some now call it, the science of learning and teaching. The agency we started is flourishing, and is called the Institute of Education Sciences, which include cognitive and neurosciences. (We knew the future augured well when we achieved the largest budget increase for a federal agency, under the legendary Office of Management and Budget Director Mitch Daniel.) Although I was invited to be “deputy dawg,” as IES director Russ Whitehurst put it, he was the top dog, and responsible for much of the agency’s success. The ideas planted in that summer of 2001 have continued to bear fruit, most recently, “Foundations for Success: The Report of the National Mathematics Advisory Panel.”

Whose success you might ask? Well, students’ success, of course, but the panel also was making a hopeful reference to the nation’s success — its prosperity and, ultimately, security that is dependent on a vibrant economy. I served as a member of the panel, in particular as chair of the Standards of Evidence Subcommittee and as a member of the Learning Processes group. My stalwart compatriots in that group were Dan Berch (representing the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, NIH ), Wade Boykin, Susan Embretson, David Geary, and Robert Siegler. The rest of the panel was pretty impressive, too, and included mathematicians, teachers (indeed the president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics), psychometricians, and scholars with many different areas of expertise. (Camilla Benbow and Larry Faulkner chaired the panel.)  We shared a common intensity about our mission for math, one that only seemed to grow as the months passed, reaching a fever pitch as the research articles we reviewed surpassed 16,000 and the revisions of our final report numbered in the nineties.

After wading through thousands of research articles, many of which were unacceptable based on our standards of evidence, it became apparent that research on learning processes was one of the most important “foundations for success.” As the report of the Task Group on Learning Processes details, “Cognitive science is the study of the processes that underlie learning and cognition and is a foundational component of scientifically informed educational practice.” In fact, lurking in such journals as Psychological Science, we found theoretically motivated interventions that had been shown to improve mathematics performance. Even “obscure” journals such as Science reported experiments that demonstrated success in closing various achievement gaps, a goal that has gathered momentum as the demographics of the traditional American workforce have shifted (e.g., Ceci & Williams, 2007).

The upshot of these discoveries, documented in the report of the Learning Processes Task Group (free and available on the Web, with citations:, was that research on learning was seen as a fecund source of solutions to the problem of the nation’s low (very low in certain subgroups) mathematics achievement. A need was expressed in the panel’s final report for “hypothesis-driven” research to cure the nation’s ills: “Basic research, in particular, is necessary to develop explicit predictions and to test hypotheses, which are underemphasized in current research on mathematics education.” The task groups also converged on the conclusion that mastering fractions (and related concepts such as decimals and proportions) is pivotal for success in algebra, and algebra in turn is pivotal for success in science and mathematics generally. Moreover, “the absence of a coherent and empirically supported theory of fraction tasks” was seen as “a major stumbling block to developing practical interventions to improve performance in this crucial domain of mathematics.” 1

What makes these conclusions more than an interesting intellectual exercise is that the recommendations were made by a panel with robust representation from the National Science Foundation (NSF), the National Institutes of Health, the Office of Science and Technology Policy, and the Institute of Education Sciences, among other agencies. As Education Secretary Margaret Spellings declared, “the group’s report will not only help guide policies within the US Department of Education, but across other federal agencies that sponsor research,” such as the NSF and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

Thus, the members of APS are a special audience for the final report of the National Mathematics Panel. Your research in psychological science is at the crossroads of rigor and relevance, exactly what is needed in educational research. Do your duty to the nation, and submit those research proposals to the many granting agencies that will be sending forth requests regarding mathematics learning. Every aspect of psychological science is relevant: social, personality, motivational, cognitive, biological, developmental and so on are all useful in the endeavor to increase learning of mathematics. The Academic Competitiveness Council found in a report this year that while the federal government spends about $3 billion a year on math and science education programs, few of those have been proved effective through research. The gist is clear: Your country needs you. ♦

1 Naturally, other areas of research were seen as important as well. I have discussed what I expect will most surprise and interest APS members, but have not done justice to the panel’s final report (a “short” summary of 120 pages) or the many hundreds of pages of the Task Group Reports; see


Ceci, S.J., & Williams, W. (Eds.). (2007). Why aren’t more women in science? Top researchers debate the evidence. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

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