• By Kevin Mount
  • Posted on Wednesday 28th January, 2009

How the cost of struggling with math adds up

A link-up between a UK education charity and one of its patrons, the European accountancy conglomerate KPMG, has managed to put a price on the social cost of failing to guarantee children an effective mathematics education. The Every Child A Chance Trust commissioned KPMG to calculate how poor numeracy damages later life chances, for example in relation to the likelihood of unemployment and vulnerability to illness, and to gauge the knock-on effect in terms of pressure on the welfare system and loss of tax revenue.They came back with an estimated annual bill to the UK taxpayer of up to $3.4 billion, and a strong suggestion that the long term costs of so many children leaving school innumerate could be as high as $62,300 per individual up to the age of 37. [See: Innumerate schoolchildren cost the taxpayer up to ?2.4bn a year.]One outcome of the Trusts campaign-raising report has been to focus attention on the cash saving potential of early intervention in the sphere of classroom maths teaching.They do so partly to promote their own solution, Every Child Counts, which they are are developing over the next three years with the aim of providing every child who needs it with early numeracy support. A previous Trust initiative, Every Child A Reader, has placed reading recovery teachers in inner-city schools, there too to provide the children most in need with intensive help. In the US a systematic review of effective mathematics tuition strategies in middle schools has lately come down strongly and exclusively in favor of co-operative learning. [See: BEE's tough line finds 98 per cent of maths programs wanting]In elementary schools the US Best Evidence Encyclopedia approves of five programs that have been able to demonstrate very strong evidence of effectiveness. One of them, Peer Assisted Learning Strategies (PALS), is also recommended by the US What Works Clearing House and the Promising Practices Network.A PALS initiative involves adjusting how children interact with teachers and their classmates rather than introducing any new materials to the curriculum.It requires teachers simply to pair off a student who needs help with specific tasks with a student who has the ability to help them learn those skills. The former are known as players and the latter coaches. All children in the classroom are paired off and couples are regularly changed so that all students get the chance to be a player and a coach also to make sure the children focus on developing a variety of skills. This frees up time for the teacher to circulate the classroom during the activity and observe pairs, providing feedback and remedial help where necessary.PALS was developed for US elementary schools in the early 1990s by Lynn and Doug Fuchs, professors of special education at Vanderbilt University. They wanted to create a program that addressed the needs of children with a diverse range of ability while improving outcomes for all, particularly around math and reading.In the past 15 years or so various iterations of the program have been evaluated. The results consistently reveal that PALS students outperform control group students on math tests. In 2002, the Fuchses and their Vanderbilt colleagues examined the effect of the program on six- and seven-year-old school children in Nashville, Tennessee. Four months after randomly assigning 20 classrooms to either PALS treatment or a control condition, there were statistically significant improvement in the PALS students test scores. The improvements were detectable over an above differences in childrens prior abilities and whether or not they had a learning disability. Consistently positive results in relation to math (and also reading) have resulted in extensions of PALS for kindergarten and secondary level students. The effects on the different age groups are being tested.See: Fuch L S, Fuchs D, Yazdian L, et al. (2002) Enhancing first-grade children's mathematical development with Peer-Assisted Learning Strategies, School Psychology Review, 31, 4, pp 569-583.

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