Bob Hughes is the K-12 education director at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
The 2023 National Teacher of the Year, Rebecka Peterson, recently spent a class period discussing something unexpected with her calculus students: food deserts.
They used Voronoi diagrams, which show areas of a surface that are closest to a certain point, to analyze parts of their hometown of Tulsa, Oklahoma, that lacked easy access to grocery stores. This investigation led them to identify other kinds of “deserts” — hospital deserts, library deserts, clean drinking water deserts — that affect people around the country and the globe.
This doesn’t look like any math class I had in school. But it’s the math class students today need, especially in light of this year’s National Assessment for Educational Progress long-term trend assessment results, which showed a staggering 9-point decline in math performance among 13-year-olds — the steepest decline ever recorded.
“In an era where we are so divided, I truly believe math can bring us together,” Peterson wrote while reflecting on the food deserts lesson. “Math helps us reason critically, explain concisely, and justify accurately. We need math citizens.”
Americans agree that we need math citizens. In a recent poll that we commissioned, nearly three-quarters of U.S. parents, teachers and the general public said that math is very important for preparing students for the real world. Nearly two-thirds agreed math is critical for developing key life skills like reasoning and critical thinking.
The stakes couldn’t be higher right now. The long-term trend assessment results show massive declines over the past four years covering the pandemic, but the truth is NAEP math scores have been mediocre for decades and were declining before the health crisis. It’s long past time to improve math education so today’s students can grow into math citizens who strengthen our country’s workforce and economy.
The math classroom we envision for all students increases student motivation, engagement and persistence using three key evidence-based elements.
- First, instruction must be effectively personalized to understand a student and their interests, abilities, culture and progress in learning math.
- Second, instruction must include opportunities for students to share and compare their problem-solving approaches and arguments in class, to ask questions and give feedback, and to learn from each other.
- Third, math instruction must not only teach students procedures and concepts, but also how to apply their math skills to solve real-world, complex problems that illustrate why math matters and is a powerful tool in the worlds of science, social science and broader civic life.
When these three pieces are in place, together we can change the equation for math teachers and empower educators nationwide to make math engaging and relevant, just like Rebecka Peterson does. It’s critical that leaders take steps now toward making this vision a reality as educators help students recover unfinished learning from the pandemic.
To start, states and districts need to equip all math educators at every grade and level to teach in engaging and exciting ways. Policymakers and administrators need to ensure teachers have high-quality, intuitive and interactive classroom materials and digital tools to motivate and engage their students in math.
As Bill Gates recently said, “We have very good tools today that, if they were fully adopted, would actually make more progress in math scores than we've made in the last 20 years.” But these high-quality resources aren’t reaching enough classrooms: Only 35% of teachers said they had the curricular materials they needed for effective instruction, according to another recent poll.
Some leaders are breaking the norm by making engaging, relevant math curriculum the default in their states and districts. In April, Colorado Gov. Jared Polis made high-quality digital math learning free to all elementary and middle schools in the state. More leaders should follow suit and invest in high-quality materials that encourage math citizenship.
Leaders must also give math teachers dedicated support, resources and time to learn how to use these high-quality materials and tools and to generally hone their craft. Many of our partner organizations offer professional learning that helps educators use high-quality instructional materials to make math relevant to their students. States and districts need to give teachers the time, space and access to these kinds of powerful learning experiences, which should include curriculum-based professional learning that can develop their instruction.
As Rebecka Peterson points out, calculus is the study of change. Math teachers are ready to embrace this principle of change in their classrooms. Now it’s up to leaders to take real steps to support teachers in improving math education. Today’s students can’t wait — they need motivating, engaging math classrooms that inspire them to apply math throughout their lives and to be successful math citizens.