UD prof researches barriers to mastering math
Nancy Jordan
4:16 p.m., April 1, 2008--In the spring of 2003, Nancy Jordan, a researcher and professor of education in UD's School of Education, along with former colleague David Kaplan, received a five-year grant of $1.7 million from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) to study children at risk for learning difficulties in mathematics.

Flash forward to 2008 when national studies are reporting dismal findings on United States students' math aptitudes, and it seems that Jordan was on the leading curve of forestalling troublesome learning trends.

Now at work on fine-tuning a test that screens elementary school children for dyscalculia, or math disabilities, Jordan believes that early intervention is a key factor for instilling the solid number sense that's critical for higher math skills, and, ultimately, for future workforce competence.

“The instrument is still in development, and we have the research findings, but putting it together as something that's useful for school personnel will take some time and is ongoing,” said Jordan, who is now working to secure another grant for this purpose.

In terms of actual fieldwork--work that required five years of careful research in a sampling of local classrooms--Jordan and several graduate assistants under her direction have secured much of the data that will produce the useful screening tool.

“When the...grant started, we began with kindergarteners, and we were able to follow the same students in our target classrooms throughout the Christina School District for as long as they stayed in district schools,” Jordan said. She added that while the study cut across demographic lines and included both city and suburban schools, it especially focused on high-risk children from low-income areas in Wilmington, Del.

Research collected over the five years yielded such solid data, Jordan said, that she published her findings in an article, “The Need for Number Sense,” in the October issue of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, a monthly periodical aimed at educators, researchers, school psychologists, administrators and policymakers.

According to Jordan, the response to that article has been encouraging--and widespread. “I was amazed by the reaction, because so many times you write research articles for a specific audience and you spend so much time and never hear very much,” she said. “But this article was aimed at practitioners, and I was really surprised at both the response and need in this area.

“I've always been interested in children with cognitive development and learning disabilities,” she added, “and I realized that there is a lot of research being done in reading, but much less being done in math. When I started out, there wasn't a lot of understanding about why children have difficulty in math, nor was it getting attention.”

Jordan emphasized that “math matters a lot in our society today with technology,” and that “competence in basic math is very important, both for pursuing advanced math, which is a gateway for all kinds of professions, and for preparing students for the general workforce.”

She added that because of state testing and measures relating to No Child Left Behind sanctioning, the push for boosting math competency is now on.

“There's now a national math panel and, from the National Academies of Science, a seminal early math panel,” Jordan said. “People are realizing that if we intervene and help children early on, they will more likely do better; and people also are realizing that this area has not received a lot of attention.”

For more information about Jordan's research, go to [www.udel.edu/cmp2].

Article by Becca Hutchinson
Photo by Kathy Atkinson