At least seven states have recently passed legislation targeting math instruction—laws that require schools to identify and support struggling students and mandate that teachers receive additional training.
The flurry of state action comes after several years of legislative focus on one of the other three Rs: early reading instruction. Laws in 32 states and the District of Columbia have required that states recommend evidence-based reading curricula, provide training for teachers in best practices, and create plans to support struggling readers.
The new math laws are pulling on the same levers.
Such a targeted focus on math improvement has been long overdue, said Karen Anderson, the director of the newly created Office of Mathematics Improvement at the Alabama State Department of Education. The state legislature passed a law last year that requires screening K-5 students for math difficulties and providing math coaches to elementary schools.
Alabama has expended significant effort to improve students’ reading skills over the past few years, Anderson said. “Math has just not received the same amount of attention,” she said.
In part, Anderson thinks, this has to do with a cultural assumption in the United States that some students just aren’t “math people.”
“If I told you I only knew half my letters and couldn’t read, that would be appalling,” she said. But it’s common for parents to say that their families are just bad at math, she added. Anderson hopes that the changes specified in the new law can challenge that kind of acceptance.
The new laws recognize that many students may need extra help in the subject, and call on schools to provide that support, said Sarah Powell, an associate professor in the department of special education at The University of Texas at Austin who studies math instruction.
The notion of different stages of intervention depending on student need—sometimes called “multitiered systems of support"—is often considered the provenance of special education, not a practice that can help in general education, too, she added.
“For a very long time, MTSS, it was like, ‘That’s a special education thing.’ And I think this is realizing … there’s a lot of kids who are struggling with math,” Powell said. “They’re looking at their test scores and saying, ‘This is a majority of kids who are in our schools.’”
Student need has deepened since the pandemic. Math scores fell across the board on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, and the proportion of lowest-achieving students grew.
Still, educators and researchers alike warn that passing these laws is just the first step. Questions of implementation, from overarching decisions about how to define “evidence-based” instruction to the nitty-gritty work of selecting diagnostic tools, will determine whether these new mandates actually improve student outcomes. (Education Week documented the challenges of putting the reading laws into practice in a special reporting project.)
Carrie DeNote, an elementary math coach in Brooksville, Fla., and the president of the Florida Council of Teachers of Mathematics, said she still has a lot of questions about the law passed this year in her state.
Florida’s law requires schools to provide support for students in grades K-4 who show a “substantial deficiency in mathematics or dyscalculia.” The state’s department of education recently released guidance for identifying these deficiencies.
“Sometimes legislation comes out, and they don’t really have all of the details worked out,” DeNote said.
How to define ‘evidence-based’ instruction
Several of the new laws say that instruction should be based on evidence. Colorado requires training for teachers on “evidence-informed practices.” Alabama mandates “evidence-based” teaching methods and curricula. Florida calls for “evidence-based” interventions.
“A big question is always, ‘What is their definition of evidence?’” said Powell.
“Often it’s a very small group of people, sometimes one person, who is making decisions for thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of kids and their teachers, and it kind of just depends on the background of that person,” she said. “I think states are struggling with that.”
This focus on “evidence-based” practice is present in reading instruction, too, and debate over what that means has demonstrated how difficult it can be to pin down a definition of the term.
In reading laws, many states outline the five components of reading listed in the National Reading Panel’s 2000 report, mandating instruction in each. But an analysis of the laws’ content released in July noted that most don’t highlight newer findings published over the two decades since the panel’s report was issued. Some laws invoke the phrase the “science of reading,” but define it differently.
Questions about what kind of evidence to prioritize, and how to define evidence-based instruction, will likely surface in math, too.
Over the years, one of the biggest sticking points in conversations about early math instruction has been about how much emphasis to place on fact fluency vs. conceptual understanding. Research shows that developing these skills and knowledge is an iterative process—students do need to be able to quickly recall their times tables, for example, but understanding why numbers make the products that they do helps students anchor the facts to broader mathematical knowledge.
Thoma Thacker, a math instructional facilitator in Little Rock, Ark., and a vice president of the Arkansas Council of Teachers of Mathematics, said she’s “fearful” that districts will interpret the state’s new law to mean a focus on rote memorization—even though young students also need to be taught strategies for solving word problems and have opportunities to create visual representations of math ideas.
Defining what “evidence-based” means can seem like a nebulous task, but it’s a key piece of the implementation process, influencing everything from what screening tools states decide to use to which interventions they choose to how teachers are trained.
There are intervention approaches that research studies have shown can help struggling students, said Powell, referencing practice guides developed by the Institute of Education Sciences’ What Works Clearinghouse, part of the U.S. Department of Education.
But while there may be proven practices, there aren’t as many off-the-shelf intervention programs in math as there are in other subjects—especially reading, said DeNote, the Florida math coach.
“It is important for us to figure out what those interventions are going to look like—past a workbook page,” DeNote said.
In Alabama, the state department of education has struggled to find tools to meet some of the law’s requirements, Anderson said.
“I think sometimes, when you have groundbreaking legislation, it really shines a light on needs that have always been there but heretofore have not been fulfilled,” she said.
Focusing on teacher training
Administering all of these assessments and interventions requires trained educators—teachers, math interventionists, and specialists.
Some laws require hiring new staff, such as Alabama’s, which allocates one to two math coaches for every K-5 public school. Others, including Colorado, Louisiana, and West Virginia, focus on additional training for teachers.
Hiring new personnel and training in-service educators requires funding, said Powell. “That stuff is not cheap, and it’s also not a one-time thing.”
Then there’s the problem of finding appropriate professional development. In reading, many states have turned to Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling, or LETRS, a well-known early reading training. Others, like Texas and Tennessee, created their own professional learning courses, and still others have provided a menu of options for districts to choose from.
With math, “there’s not as much out there,” Powell said. She’s currently working with Kansas to create their own training for math professional learning.
Alabama is also providing its math training in house, offering professional development for coaches through the state education department’s Alabama Math, Science, and Technology Initiative.
As more teachers receive training, and more students are screened in math, DeNote thinks that these changes could prompt a larger-scale reevaluation of how math is taught. If Florida’s new policies identify many students who need extra support, it could indicate that curriculum and teaching need to change, she said.
“There’s a large volume of students that need math intervention,” she said. “But I think, also, we need a closer look at how we’re working [on] our tier 1 instruction.”
A version of this article appeared in the August 23, 2023 edition of Education Week as 7 States Now Require Math Support for Struggling Students. Here’s What’s in the New Laws