Mathematics

Parents, Teachers Agree: Math Matters, But Schools Must Make It Relevant

By Evie Blad — April 17, 2023 5 min read
Images of math equations.
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Parents responding to a national survey rank math as the most important subject students take in school, but they also rated it as the course most in need of updating and improvement.

That’s the key finding of a December survey of 1,500 adults by the Global Strategy Group, a public relations and research firm, on behalf of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

The Gates Foundation announced the findings Monday to set a vision for its 10-year effort to improve K-12 math instruction. The foundation, which has heavily influenced debates over policies like small high schools, teacher evaluation, and the Common Core State Standards, kicked off its math work by announcing an initial $1.1 billion, four-year investment in October.

“Parents, teachers, and the general public see a disconnect between the math education they believe our young people need to thrive and the one that students are actually experiencing in too many classrooms,” Bob Hughes, the foundation’s director of K-12 education, told reporters in an April 13 conference call. “And parents and educators point to a solution: making math education more relevant for students and more connected to the real world.”

(The nonprofit that publishes Education Week receives operating support from the Gates Foundation. Education Week retains sole editorial control over its articles.)

The findings support the organization’s vision for improving math instruction, Hughes said. The Gates Foundation wants to:

  • Encourage curriculum providers to develop “high quality” materials that connect math to relevant, real-world concepts, like budgeting and student interests.
  • Support preservice teacher education and ongoing professional development to help teachers use those materials.
  • “Transform high school math pathways” to continue emphasizing the importance of calculus while also encouraging schools to broaden advanced math offerings with courses like statistics, data science, and quantitative reasoning, which may be more relevant for students pursuing careers outside of science and technology fields, Hughes said.

The notion of relevance isn’t new: Questions about how to make math applicable to students’ lives and careers date back decades, and in general math education has teetered back and forth between successive “back to basics” approaches and efforts to make math more immediately relevant.

The Gates push also comes at a critical moment for math instruction. In October, the latest results from the National Assessment for Educational Progress showed historic declines in math progress.

What parents said about math

The survey was part of the foundation’s six-month plan to explore public perceptions of math. Researchers also conducted online focus groups with parents and educators.

“Many parents say that math learning feels to their child more like a tedious chore to slog through than like an interesting challenge to tackle,” said Global Strategies Group Vice President of Research Annie Norbitz. “And because of that, far too many students are not interested and engaged in what they are learning, and therefore they are not living up to their full potential.”

In the survey, a majority of parents, 52 percent, and teachers, 53 percent, agreed that students who succeed in math are more likely to succeed later in life. Sixty percent of all respondents—including parents, teachers, and the general public—ranked math as “extremely important,” a higher rating than any other academic subject included in the survey.

Parents, teachers as a whole, and math teachers specifically were most likely to agree that out of a menu of academic subjects, math was among the top “most in need of updating and improvement” in terms of how it’s taught.

When asked “what K-12 math education should ideally be like,” survey respondents in general were most likely to say “relevant to the real world” and “useful,” priorities that were much higher on the list than “challenging and rigorous.”

The findings were similar to responses from teachers, which were seperately analyzed: 69 percent said math class should be relevant and a lower number, 37 percent, said it should be rigorous.

Hughes rejected the notion that rigor and relevance are at odds. Making math instruction more connected to the real world will help students learn more challenging concepts, he said.

“I don’t think that the foundation is going to back off on rigor,” Hughes said. “If anything, we’re going to find new ways to increase rigor by thinking about how applied math works and the context that operates in.”

Questions and controversies in math instruction

As debates over state standards and textbook adoption have shown, it can be politically and practically difficult to change the way any academic subject is taught.

Math is not immune from those challenges, and many of the most contentious conflicts center on relevance.

A core question in math debates is whether instruction should emphasize explicit skills and step-by-step procedures or inquiry and open-ended problems—part of larger disagreements about whether students need to understand math concepts or procedures first. In fact, research shows that procedural and conceptual knowledge develop in tandem.

“We believe in a right answer,” Hughes said, adding that there may be many ways to get to that right answer.

In addition, searing debates have accompanied efforts to “detrack” math classes in the name of equity. A California panel proposed updating the state’s math framework to detrack early math classes by eliminating the sorting of students by ability, moving Algebra 1 from 8th grade to 9th grade for all students, promoting a focus on problem solving, and supporting math courses like data science as an alternative to calculus. Critics panned the proposal as “woke math.”

And a recent analysis of San Francisco’s detracking reform found mixed effects, with more Black students taking precalculus but—at least initially—fewer students overall taking AP courses in advanced math.

California’s state board plans to make a final decision on a revised version of the framework in 2023, and Hughes said he would wait to see that version before taking a position.

Increasing real-world relevancy could be particularly challenging as states pass new restrictions on how schools talk about race, sexuality, gender, and broadly defined “divisive concepts.”

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In Florida, for example, state officials rejected a proposed math textbook after a reviewer flagged a story problem centered on the gender pay gap in men’s and women’s soccer. Other rejected books were deemed to have included social emotional learning or “critical race theory.”

In focus groups conducted on behalf of the Gates Foundation, parents and teachers defined relevant as “teaching math through the prism of real world and societal examples” and “drawing connections between content and students’ lives outside the classroom,” Norbitz said.
Hughes said different communities may take different approaches to making math relevant.

“Relevance is determined by the context students live in, the community values, and the conversation that is happening there,” he said.

A version of this article appeared in the May 03, 2023 edition of Education Week as Parents, Teachers Agree: Math Matters, But Schools Must Make It Relevant

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