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The ERIC/OSEP Special Project

OSEP, Ideas that Work

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Development funded by the U.S. Office of Special Education Programs


Math Curricula Don't Match Learning
Needs of Students with Mild Disabilities

Neither students with mild disabilities nor their counterparts without disabilities learn math the way commercial or district math curricula are organized, according to a study funded by the Office of Special Education Programs of the US Department of Education.

While math standards, such as those published by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) may group mathematics topics across grades, commercial materials provided to the schools and the curriculum guides of the states and districts themselves continue to specify grade-by-grade level content, which the data reveal to be an ineffective measure of student progress.

The study, by Cawley, Parmar, Foley, Salmon, and Roy, offers some suggestions on improving the mathematical achievement of students with and without mild disabilities and discusses the implications for math standards. Students with mild disabilities also have problems with vocabulary-laden math texts, say the researchers. The students' comprehension of text may be below grade level at the same time that their computational skill levels are higher.

The solution does not lie in simplifying the math. The authors believe that a major limitation in the mathematics performance of students with disabilities is caused by the fact that the math presented to students in special education intervention is of a much lower quality than the students are capable of mastering. "Both mathematics educators and the special educators," the authors state, "must ... identify an alternative that will be acceptable at the state levels where adoptions are made and at the classroom level where instruction is conducted." A possible alternative encouraged by the researchers is to focus on "big ideas," which are the central concepts within a learning domain, and which form the basis for generalization and expansion.

Teachers who want to understand the progress of students in solving word problems should understand the complications created by extraneous information. For instance, some students attempt to include all the numbers in a problem regardless of their relevance. Many word problems pose difficulties for students because the students lack the contextual information to make their computations. Instruction in problem-solving skills should put less stress on understanding of cue words and more on situated language comprehension and information processing, because cue words sometimes misguide students. Student difficulties with word problems can result from a failure to comprehend language or to process information rather than any inability to do the math involved.

The pressure is on for teachers to have ALL students in their classes show progress in the general education curriculum and meet statewide educational standards. This OSEP-funded study sheds light on some issues that curriculum developers and teachers need to address in order to make that happen.

More complete information on this study can be found in Cawley, John, Parmar, Rene, Foley, Theresa E., Salmon, Susan, and Roy, Sharmila,"Arithmetic Performance of Students: Implications for Standards and Programming," Exceptional Children, 67, no. 3 (Spring 2001): 1-18. Funding for the original study was provided by a grant from the Division of Personnel Preparation, Office of Special Education Programs, US Department of Education (Grant #H029K890068; John Cawley, Project Director).


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Last updated: August 19, 2001

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