It feels like a tale as old as time. We’ve been hearing how the United States education system has fallen behind other countries for decades, at least since the Nation at Risk report in 1983.
The good news is that, when you dig a little deeper into the details, you find that we’re doing okay in certain areas such as reading and science. The bad news is that math outcomes have not improved much compared to other subjects, and even seem to be getting worse by some metrics, as you’ll see below. Here are 4 reasons why math education needs our help.
PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) tests a sampling of 15-year-olds from countries around the world every few years to rank and compare the world’s education systems. The most recent test was administered in 2018 in 79 countries. The United States, while scoring above average in Reading and Science, ranking 13th and 18th, respectively, scored below average in math, ranking 37th1. In addition, NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress) scores for 4th and 8th graders in math have actually decreased since 20122. To make matters worse, we know that within these middling results exist significant racial and ethnic gaps that continue to persist. Black and Hispanic students continue to score below3 White students on the NAEP test at each grade level the test measures (4th, 8th, and 12th).
More students change their major from math (over 52 percent) than any other declared major, according to the National Center for Education Statistics4. One possible explanation is that while math-related occupations are growing and well-paid5, 53.5% of workers in careers related to mathematics and statistics obtain at least master's degrees6, providing an added barrier for many.
The RAND Corporation recently surveyed teachers to learn more about their needs. 48% of math teachers from Common Core State Standards (CCSS) states reported they were not well prepared to help students meet mathematics standards7. In the same report, among teachers who were expected to address mathematics standards, the highest reported professional development needs included differentiation of instruction and complex, inquiry-based modes of instruction, such as the Experience First, Formalize Later model used at Math Medic8.
Advanced Placement (AP) classes in high school provide students a unique opportunity to earn college credit for a significantly lower cost than a typical college course. While access to AP has improved for many low-income students, we still have a ways to go, particularly in math. According to the 2020 College Board AP report9, 21 states do not provide financial support for low-income students to take AP exams. In addition, there are far fewer AP math exams taken10 in the U.S. than AP language arts, science, or social studies exams taken, an indication that AP math access needs improvement or that fewer students are ready for AP math compared to other subjects.
So what can we do? First, we can financially support students that intend to study mathematics or math-related subjects after high school, including those that wish to become educators. Second, we can offer training opportunities to K-12 math teachers, thereby improving the overall impact of math education. Third, we can provide resources and supplies to schools in need. Last, but certainly not least, we can target support in ways that will help decrease achievement gaps.
Pete Grostic, Ph.D