COLUMN: How can we improve math education in America? Help us count the ways

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Dixie Ross has taught every level of math offered in Texas public high schools and trained hundreds of AP calculus teachers in summer institutes. Over 40 years, she’s developed strong views on what’s wrong with American math education, but one problem has rankled her since she first walked into a classroom: unequal access to higher-level courses.

Too many students are held back from advanced math that could provide direct pathways into college level math and STEM jobs, said Ross, a former presidential awardee for her teaching. What irks her most is that decisions about who gets tracked into or out of these higher-level courses are too often based on a student’s race.

“There are kids who can be successful in math, but the opportunities are not there for them,” Ross told me, in an eye-opening conversation that came in response to a survey The Hechinger Report sent to our readers last month. “I wish I had some magic bullet solution but haven’t found it yet. And I have been looking for four decades.

Ross was among more than 465 Hechinger Report readers who responded to our survey, with thoughtful feedback that is already informing our coverage of America’s math crisis. We welcome hearing from readers as we visit classrooms and campuses, digging into questions about what kind of math should be taught at what age, and how best to boost lagging performance, close racial achievement gaps and help students catch up after the pandemic.

“There are a lot of holes and gaps from distance learning. The math content got shrunk down and the fluency just wasn’t there. It’s heartbreaking.”

Giavanni Coleman, math teacher in Haywood, California

Several people pointed to gaps in availability of courses in STEM classes, which should not come as a surprise: Two out of five Black and Latino students surveyed for a recent joint report from the Education Trust and Equal Opportunity Schools said they have a passion for studying science, technology and engineering and want to go to college, yet only three percent were enrolled in AP STEM classes.

The issue of learning loss and recent NAEP test score declines – the largest ever recorded – also loomed large in survey responses, highlighting the devastating impact the pandemic had on students and families, in particular in schools that serve large numbers of Black and Latino students.

So did the issue of U.S. student performance compared with other countries: Our 15-year-olds rank behind 30 countries and one region on one international test, while our fourth graders trail 14 countries on another. So it makes sense that some teachers who answered the survey want to know how high-performing countries are teaching math, along with what cultural barriers might be in the way.  “Are there schools that replicate best practices of countries like Japan and Finland and demonstrate better outcomes?” one educator asked.

Related: Plunging NAEP scores make clear the long and difficult road ahead to pandemic recovery

Survey results also confirmed there is a lot of anxiety about math. Some of it arises from recent test scores showing dismal middle school performance: Students who started middle school early in the pandemic lost more ground in math than any other group and are still struggling. 

Fears that teachers are insufficiently trained in math and that poor math skills harm America’s competitiveness and weaken our ability to fill critical jobs came up often in our survey. So did worries that high schools are placing too much emphasis on calculus and not enough on practical skills like data analysis and statistics for an increasingly high-tech world.

Several readers noted that families need more support than ever in overcoming their own math fears, along with additional tools and strategies for playfully supporting and supplementing their children’s math knowledge. That means challenging age-old assumptions that some people simply aren’t good at math.

And some teachers had specific ideas about what must change in math education: Giavanni Coleman, a 20-year veteran who teaches fifth- and sixth-grade math in Haywood, California, told us that schools must build a stronger foundation in math early on, and wants to see more investment in teacher training and early childhood math to help infuse a love of numbers at a young age.

“It takes time, and money, and human capital and training,” Coleman told me in a follow-up conversation.

Coleman was also among the many teachers worried about pandemic learning loss. “There are a lot of holes and gaps from distance learning,” she said. “The math content got shrunk down and the fluency just wasn’t there. It’s heartbreaking.”

Here are a few top themes that concerned our readers:

  • Reducing anxiety or fear of math among students and helping them to understand why it matters. 
  • Highlighting the importance of basic arithmetic (addition, subtraction, multiplication, division) in math teaching and focusing on establishing strong foundations before advancing to more conceptual lessons.
  • Learning in more detail about what effective math instruction looks like for preschoolers and kindergarteners
  • Understanding why subjects like algebra and calculus have become so important in college admissions and whether statistics or data science should matter more, along with how curricula are chosen and which work best
  • Tracing how math instruction has changed throughout history and ensuring that math lessons aren’t outdated
  • Analyzing how math instruction and student performance changed after the introduction of the Common Core standards

Related: After common core a mysterious spike in failure rate among New York High School students

We also discovered common themes that concerned particular groups.

Parents were most likely to mention concerns about math curricula, math anxiety and their hope that math instruction would place greater emphasis on problem-solving instead of memorization and repetition.

Respondents from higher education were also most likely to mention reducing anxiety or fear of math among their students, along with the hope they can learn to both love math and understand why it matters to their careers.

And all groups worry that there aren’t enough sufficiently qualified and experienced math teachers, in part due to low pay and poor working conditions.

Teacher Ross believes in recruiting great math students to become math teachers and wants to put all students on track to take advanced math unless they opt out of it. They should then be required to take any classes they fail until they pass, she thinks.

“Are there schools that replicate best practices of countries like Japan and Finland and demonstrate better outcomes?”

Educator who replied to Hechinger’s survey

“We need to make sure kids understand that their decision to take or not take certain math classes will largely determine the economic opportunities that will be available to them,” she said.

The survey results will be enormously helpful, but one of the most important ways of improving math came from a student I contacted after speaking with Ross. Carla Edith Brayton was an undocumented immigrant from Mexico living in Texas when she landed in Ross’s math classes. She worked after school and nights at a local McDonald’s, and while she’d always been good at math and loved the subject, she often fell asleep in class and felt discouraged.

Ross never allowed her to give up and pushed her to apply for scholarships and attend college. Brayton is now 29, a civil engineer and mother of two, the first in her family to attend college – she graduated from the University of Texas at San Antonio in 2017 – and to own a home. She loves her job and said none of her success would have happened if Ross had not encouraged her.

“Someone simply took the time to notice and believed in me. That’s what changed my life,” Brayton told me, noting that she has found a way to pay it forward by speaking at school career days, describing her background and the higher-level math classes she might otherwise have been shut out of.

“Education is the key for all people,” she said. “It certainly was for me.”

This story about math education was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our weekly newsletters.

The Hechinger Report provides in-depth, fact-based, unbiased reporting on education that is free to all readers. But that doesn’t mean it’s free to produce. Our work keeps educators and the public informed about pressing issues at schools and on campuses throughout the country. We tell the whole story, even when the details are inconvenient. Help us keep doing that.

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