Four Ways State Education Leaders Can Improve Math Achievement
By Tim Hudson
Even though reading curricula and achievement are currently the top educational priorities across much of the U.S., math achievement has declined worse than reading as a result of the pandemic. This ongoing math challenge is too broad and important to be addressed solely at the classroom, school, and district levels; state education leaders must continue taking steps to ensure we improve student success and teacher support in PK-12 mathematics. These steps have strong public support, as recent research shows adults believe math is the subject most in need of improving. State education leaders are uniquely positioned to promote, fund, and support initiatives that ensure high quality math learning and improved achievement remain a priority. Here are four strategies state education leaders can use, including three examples of how innovative state leaders are currently supporting math achievement.
1. Prioritize State-Level Funding for Math Initiatives
Just as reading initiatives have warranted state-level attention and funding, improving math achievement will also require focus and financial investment. Given how success in Algebra 1 remains a critical predictor of success in high school and career, investments now in math achievement will pay dividends for students, families, and communities for decades to come. An example of proactive investment in math achievement was seen in October 2023 when the Georgia Legislature and Department of Education took quick action to create a K-5 Numeracy Development Grant. This new grant provided individual schools with up to $25,000 and districts up to $100,000 for improving math achievement with easy-to-use, effective numeracy interventions during 2024. The Georgia Legislature’s action is a model for how state leaders can provide districts with funds for targeted resources that make an impact on math achievement in a short amount of time.
2. Require Evidence of State-Wide Efficacy
To address the urgent need to improve math achievement, state level leaders need to ensure they are funding and supporting math programs and interventions that have been proven to improve student achievement quickly and at scale. Georgia’s Numeracy Grant scoring process rightly gave priority points to “Evidence-based interventions (i.e., Evidence for ESSA).” Those studies are an important starting point for finding programs with validated third-party efficacy, but state-level leaders also need evidence that a program has had student-level impact at a broad scale.
South Carolina’s state education leaders understood the need to have demonstrable impact on math achievement following the statewide adoption and implementation of the DreamBox Math digital resource in the 2021-2022 school year. Therefore, they ensured an analysis was conducted to quantify the impact of the program. In this first-of-its-kind study at a statewide scale involving 77,000 students, just one hour per week of usage was shown to have made it three times more likely that students performing below grade level would achieve the South Carolina state growth targets, while students already at or above grade level were two times more likely to achieve their targets. All state leaders should require math support programs to demonstrate benefits to all students whether they are performing above, at, or below grade level.
3. Make Teachers’ Jobs Easier
Even when well-intentioned, state initiatives or mandates too often put additional burdens on the schedule and work of classroom teachers who are already stretched thin. State leaders should look for solutions that account for the realities teachers are experiencing on a day-to-day basis and design initiatives that are easy to implement and don’t make teachers’ jobs more difficult. Former classroom teacher and Montana State Superintendent Elsie Arntzen kept these realities in mind when leading the design of the Montana Alternative Student Testing (MAST) Pilot program which is now in its second year. This innovative program helps teachers differentiate and support students more frequently and more easily by leveraging continuous data and efficacious solutions.
4. Remember What it was Like to be a Math Student
As the beloved Fred Rogers all reminded us, “You were a child once, too.” Because we were all students in math class for at least ten years, reflecting on our experiences can provide state leaders with perspective as they plan initiatives to improve the math achievement of today’s students. For example, if you struggled in math, reflect on what would have helped you back then – perhaps you needed more time to make sense of things or teachers who were more caring and qualified. Maybe it was the pedagogy in your math classes that created problems for you – teachers giving lectures about answers to questions you never asked, and the only differentiation was talking slower and louder. If you had access to a computer-based math program when you were struggling, you wouldn’t want it to have simply been a digital version of those same boring, confusing lectures. Students today don’t want that either.
If you were successful in math as a student and enjoyed it, be sure to recognize you were in the minority. What worked for you didn’t work for most people. But the confidence and belonging you felt in math class are what all students deserve, and state level initiatives should focus on those outcomes as well as achievement goals. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is investing significantly in figuring out how motivation, engagement, and persistence are impacting student achievement in math. As data and resources from those programs become available, state education leaders can learn from them and look for new opportunities to invest in initiatives or create grants that prioritize both competence and confidence in math.
We want students to be well-rounded critical thinkers in many subject areas, so state education leaders must also have a state-level strategy that’s well-rounded. These four ideas can help ensure we don’t put student achievement in math at risk as we work to improve achievement in other subjects.
About the author
Dr. Tim Hudson is the Chief Learning Officer at Discovery Education.