The latest plummeting math scores in the National Assessment of Educational Progress did not come as a surprise to Sian Beilock, a cognitive scientist and the president of Barnard College at Columbia University.
Underperformance in math is not new for students in the United States, especially compared to other countries' math performance over the years, said Beilock, who studies performance anxiety as well as the strategies to overcome it. In 2018, the Programme for International Student Assessment ranked the United States No. 36 in math out of the 79 participating countries and regions.
“We also know that across countries, overall, the more anxious students in a country are about math, the worse they perform,” Beilock said. “I think this is a really important phenomenon and important to think about, especially given that we know there are learning losses.”
In her research, Beilock has noticed educators, especially at the elementary level, tend to also be anxious about math. When those teachers are in the classroom, students are more likely to also perform poorly and have negative feelings toward math, she said.
“It’s not just giving more time for educators to be in the classroom, but the quality of that time,” Beilock said. “How are we making educators and even parents feel comfortable about math? Because if we just double down and do a lot more time on math — that in itself I don’t think is enough. It’s that attitudes matter, too.”
The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation announced in October it is dedicating $1.1 billion in grants over four years to deepen and prioritize math instruction. A big focus of these funds will be to develop instructional materials that improve student motivation, engagement and persistence in the subject.
When parents feel math and science are more important, those students are more likely to enroll in those subjects, other research has found, Beilock said. Educators have a role to play in this, too, she said, and they need more support and resources to help parents understand the importance of math in their children’s lives, she said.
Math anxiety can be conquered when parents and educators convey to students that math is learned through practice rather than it being a skill “that you have or not,” Beilock said.
Another suggested strategy is to teach students that math is a part of everyday life, she said.
“Approach math around fun, sort of… games, puzzles — anything that takes the stress off,” Beilock said.
There should be two-way communication between parents and teachers, too. Parents can ask teachers what’s being taught in math class and how they can further support their child at home, and teachers can provide those tools, Beilock said.
“You could imagine that children’s math anxiety has gotten bigger, because they haven’t been having to do math or engage in it in the same way,” Beilock said. “The idea to help students approach it again, to go towards it rather than go away, could be really important.”