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.
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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.


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