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More School Time on Math Won't Help Struggling Students in the Long Run

Will more time in math class equate to more math fluency for middle school students? Not in the long run, according to research done at Stanford University's Center for Educational Policy Analysis.

Doctoral student Eric Taylor had the chance to test out just how effective additional math class time was for struggling students by diving down into data generated by Florida's Miami-Dade County Public Schools. Administrators there had some of its sixth graders double the number of math classes in their schedule. To be put into that group, they had to score below the 50th percentile the previous year in a fifth grade state math test. However, those students didn't score much differently from other students who may have had only a few more points on the same math test.

As Taylor told a reporter at Stanford, "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."

Taylor found that students doubling down on math in class did score higher on the state math test. But those initial gains eroded in subsequent school years after students returned to a regular schedule. In his report, "Spending More of the School Day in Math Class: Evidence from a Regression Discontinuity in Middle School," Taylor stated, "One year after treatment ended, only one-third to one-half of the initial gain remained. Two years out the effects had shrunk to one-third the original size. Once students reach high school, I find little evidence of differences in math achievement or outcomes in other subjects."

Taylor also noted that the "pattern" of decay over time was the same result in other educational interventions, such as assigning low-performing students to a more skilled teacher, reducing the class size or holding students back. But in the case of the math program, there was a cost that doesn't show up in those other approaches: If the student is in math, he or she isn't taking other subjects — physical education, art, music or a foreign language. While Taylor found no long-term effects from missing these types of courses, he did note that other research has found an impact on obesity in fifth grade boys who didn't take PE.

This "fadeout" pattern doesn't mean the extra math work didn't help, he noted. But it also doesn't mean it helped.

"We care about test scores as a way to measure whether kids are on the right track today, but what we ultimately care about is kids being happy and healthy, being good citizens and having access to good jobs," said Taylor. An extra math class may not be the best way to achieve that outcome.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a writer who covers technology and business for a number of publications. Contact her at dian@dischaffhauser.com.

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