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Why Math? Why Now?: The Urgency of Relevant and Engaging Math Education

Now more than ever, teachers need access to high-quality instructional materials to engage students in real-world math education.

The Center for Education Market Dynamics • August 28, 2023

Why am I learning this? How will I use it? Variations of this refrain are repeated year after year in American math classrooms, as students struggle to see how math relates to their lives. This is unsurprising, as traditional approaches to teaching math often focus on memorization and formulas over critical thinking and real-world applications.

But the skills students use to solve for X are now more important than ever. A University of Georgetown study, for example, predicted that two-thirds of all jobs will require some form of mathematics skills by 2030. Estimates from the U.S. Occupational Outlook Handbook paint a similar picture, with employment in math occupations expected to grow 29 percent by 2031, far outpacing the projected job growth across all fields of work. And math will increasingly play a role in solving global challenges, from combating climate change to understanding the spread of disease.

In spite of this social and economic context, math learning lags across the country – especially among historically underserved students. This has been badly exacerbated by COVID-19, which wiped out two decades of systemic gains in math, based on results from the 2023 National Assessment on Educational Progress (NAEP). The greatest declines were seen among students in the bottom 10th percentile, whose math scores dipped by 12 points – four times the magnitude of loss among learners in the 90th percentile. A similar, overlapping disparity was noted between the scores of Black and white students, who lost 13 and five points in math, respectively, both reflecting pre-existing opportunity gaps and deepening them. Throughout the pandemic, students of color and students experiencing poverty were more likely to attend schools that remained remote for longer periods of time. These realities could have ripple effects for years, across long-term student outcomes like career prospects and future earnings, if they’re not rigorously addressed by schools now.

High-quality, engaging math curriculum is one of the most powerful levers we have to respond to this profound challenge. Research consistently demonstrates the potential impact of high-quality, grade-level instructional materials on student achievement and teacher practice alike. And, when weighing the cost and impact of adopting high-quality math curriculum against other potential education reforms, such as rethinking teacher evaluation systems, it is both less expensive and less complicated to implement. While there is no one silver bullet that can reverse educational inequity, ensuring that all students have access to effective math materials would go a long way towards giving diverse learners the tools to tackle 21st century challenges, achieve their educational and career goals, and, ultimately, live the lives they envision for themselves.

But there’s a troubling gap between what the research tells us and what’s actually happening in American classrooms, as studies show that access to high-quality curriculum is scarce and variable. And, as is so often the case, historically underserved students are the ones who bear the brunt of these inequities.

Compounding these challenges is the dearth of good information about district curriculum selection – making it nearly impossible to quantify what access to high-quality math curriculum looks like. For all with a stake in improving student outcomes, and particularly those leading pandemic recovery efforts, we believe that answering this question is critical. How, after all, can state and local leaders, policymakers, and consumers make informed decisions about curriculum if they don’t know which instructional materials districts are actually using or how well they’re working?

The Center for Education Market Dynamics (CEMD) is doing the work of piecing this puzzle together, as we embark on building a national database on curriculum selection––a tool we believe can help get quality curriculum into the hands of educators and the students they serve. In the meantime, here are some considerations and resources for education leaders looking to improve student math learning right now:

  • For ideas on how to incorporate math curriculum data collection into your existing systems and structures, look at the 2022 impact report from the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO), which highlights the curriculum transparency efforts of states that have been part of CCSSO’s High-Quality Instructional Materials and Professional Development (IMPD) Network.
  • Trusted sources like EdReports.org offer a wealth of information about the quality and effectiveness of many leading math curricula that can be used as you work with educators and community members to evaluate district curriculum choices and create rubrics for selecting new instructional materials.
  • CCSSO’s impact report also has helpful examples on how to incentivize schools and districts to select and utilize high-quality math curriculum, from supporting them with curriculum-connected professional learning opportunities to tying funding and other resources to the use of high-quality instructional materials.
  • CEMD’s first and second national math reports can help you understand the nationwide reach of high-quality math curriculum, including: What do we know about the quality of math curriculum in schools? What kind of footprint does high-quality curriculum have? What proportion of teachers and students have access to this crucial resource?

Ready to learn more? Click to read CEMD’s math reports and get actionable insights and resources about K-12 education in the United States.

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