Mathematics Q&A

Teacher Group Wants a Focus on Low Math Performance, Too

With reading efforts underway, a group says middle school math is an area ripe for improvement
By Olina Banerji — May 10, 2024 5 min read
Photo of teacher in front of class.
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

New York took steps to move toward the “science of reading” in early January. And New York City’s NYC Reads initiative, which has required classrooms in the Big Apple to select from three curricula that are purportedly closer to the evidence base on how children read, is now well underway.

Now, those actions have motivated some educators in New York City to call on state and local leaders to revisit the way math is taught in public schools in the nation’s largest school district.

Educators For Excellence, a national nonprofit that advocates for more teacher representation in education policy, has released a set of three recommendations to address the “math achievement crisis” in New York City.

The recommendations call for selecting evidence-based curriculum, bolstering professional development for math educators, and focusing on math proficiency in middle school for all students.

“The state administration took bold and decisive actions to improve reading literacy. We need to do the same with math,” said Marielys Divanne, the executive director of the New York chapter of E4E.

Divanne points to last year’s scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress’ gauge of urban school districts as a “concerning reality”—only 18 percent of 4th grade students in the city were proficient in math, with even lower scores for Black and Hispanic students.

The recommendations home in on middle school as an intervention point to prepare students with the foundational skills they need for 9th grade algebra, a critical course for high school success.

Studies show that students of color and those from low-income backgrounds are less likely than their peers to be given a chance to take advanced math classes in higher grades, in part because of problems completing algebra and access to high-level course sequences.

Fewer states, meanwhile, have taken steps to plug the gaps in math proficiency as they’ve worked to do the same in literacy. Studies show that early math skills are a key predicator of later academic success, but states have tended toward literacy interventions in elementary grades over math proficiency in middle school.

Divanne believes there’s no need to choose.

“We understand that NYC Reads is being implemented at the elementary school level. Some may suggest prioritizing literacy before tackling math, but we believe in simultaneous reform,” she said. “It’s crucial at this point to address the foundational subjects together.”

E4E’s recommendations hinge on making the curriculum and classrooms for advanced math more inclusive. They draw on insights gleaned from interviews and focus groups with math educators and experts from across the country.

Divanne spoke to Education Week about how these recommendations will help the city tackle its low math proficiency rates, and why professional development is crucial to inclusivity.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Why is this the right time to release these recommendations? What is the gap they’re trying to address?

We can’t wait another two decades. In New York City, we’ve seen the NEAP scores on math, which are even lower for Black and Hispanic students. These scores worsened during the pandemic and they haven’t recovered. That decline will only continue.

Our educators are telling us that 9th graders are not fully ready for algebra. We are calling for a focus on middle school because high school is too late to intervene. We need to narrow the set of curricular options to high-quality ones, and we need to do that through deep engagement and feedback from educators so that they don’t feel that this was done to them, but with them.

What role should teachers play in selecting curriculum?

They should play a key role in assessing curricular options and combining their expertise with existing frameworks. The city should publicly release the metrics used to pick curricula, ensuring that there’s transparency in the process.

There are many curricular options out there, so it would be ideal if the city can identify the criteria of selection with educators before implementation. This curriculum should be culturally responsive.

We are encouraged by what we’re seeing with NYC Reads, which calls for a shift to a narrow set of evidence-based curricula. The city has shared that it will extend professional learning for the literacy approach. We believe that that needs to happen with math, too.

What should this professional development look like?

To effectively support teachers in implementing high-quality math curriculum, the most important thing we need is sustained, long-term investments in ongoing professional learning. Just doing it occasionally won’t help. It should be aligned [to the curriculum], and it should be long-term. We need to ensure that teachers have access to instructional coaches.

Some of these recommendations also include peer-to-peer coaching and mentorship and time in the school’s schedule for observations and embedded peer classroom visits. The training should also help teachers think about pacing, and how their math lessons connect with real-world scenarios. All this works when there’s ongoing coaching.

The recommendations say implicit bias in math education should be a focus. Why?

We need to work with our students to ensure that they feel that they can be good in math. Our educators should also feel that their students can achieve in math.

For that to happen, adults need support in the classroom to understand their own biases and views of math education and numeracy when it comes to expanding access to all students [to higher-level, more rigorous courses].

The recommendations call for implicit bias training for math educators and academic placement counselors. We need investments [to hire] social workers, counselors, and others who can support instructional time [in dealing with behavioral and absenteeism challenges]. We need to create the right conditions for success for all students to tap into that advanced coursework.

What impact do you hope to achieve?

We envision that every student in the city has access to high-quality math education that’s reflective of their cultural backgrounds. We live in a rapidly changing world. This is about more than just improving test scores. It’s about preparing our students for real-world challenges.

Students should have the option to take high-level college courses. When schools don’t teach algebra, [they] don’t get them ready for calculus. When they graduate, students should have a wider set of potential careers to choose from.

As a society, we often hear, “I’m not good at math.” We don’t hear that about reading. Shifting that mindset across the board is essential.

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Budget & Finance Webinar
Innovative Funding Models: A Deep Dive into Public-Private Partnerships
Discover how innovative funding models drive educational projects forward. Join us for insights into effective PPP implementation.
Content provided by Follett Learning
Budget & Finance Webinar Staffing Schools After ESSER: What School and District Leaders Need to Know
Join our newsroom for insights on investing in critical student support positions as pandemic funds expire.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Student Achievement Webinar
How can districts build sustainable tutoring models before the money runs out?
District leaders, low on funds, must decide: broad support for all or deep interventions for few? Let's discuss maximizing tutoring resources.
Content provided by Varsity Tutors for Schools

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Mathematics What the Research Says 4 Questions to Boost Algebra Gains for Middle Schoolers
More than 1 in 3 public school students now takes Algebra 1 in middle school. Here's how to make sure they succeed in this gatekeeper class.
5 min read
Photo of a Black male teacher giving a math less to Junior-high Black students.
Martine Severin/E+
Mathematics Video Make Math Instruction Better: 3 Tips on How From Researchers
Education Week's Sarah D. Sparks shares three insights on improving math instruction from this year's AERA conference.
1 min read
A group of high school girls work together to solve an algebra problem during their precalculus class.
A group of high school girls work together to solve an algebra problem during their precalculus class.
Allison Shelley for All4Ed
Mathematics 3 Ways to Strengthen Math Instruction
Educators offered advice on how teachers can make math seem more relevant and engaging.
3 min read
A kindergarten teacher leads a small group in a math activity.
A kindergarten teacher leads a small group in a math activity.
Allison Shelley for All4Ed
Mathematics What the Research Says Ready or Not for an AI Economy: How U.S. Students Stack Up
"Artificial intelligence has triggered a global talent race," an expert says, and American students lack the data skills for it.
4 min read
Illustration of city buildings with financial, job, data, technology, and statistics iconography.
DigitalVision Vectors/Getty