The Hechinger Report is a national nonprofit newsroom that reports on one topic: education. Sign up for our weekly newsletters to get stories like this delivered directly to your inbox.

Fill out the survey for yourself!

Dixie Ross has taught every level of math offered in Texas public high schools and trained hundreds of AP calculus teachers in summer institutes. Over 40 years, she’s developed strong views on what’s wrong with American math education, but one problem has rankled her since she first walked into a classroom: unequal access to higher-level courses.

Too many students are held back from advanced math that could provide direct pathways into college level math and STEM jobs, said Ross, a former presidential awardee for her teaching. What irks her most is that decisions about who gets tracked into or out of these higher-level courses are too often based on a student’s race.

“There are kids who can be successful in math, but the opportunities are not there for them,” Ross told me, in an eye-opening conversation that came in response to a survey The Hechinger Report sent to our readers last month. “I wish I had some magic bullet solution but haven’t found it yet. And I have been looking for four decades.

Ross was among more than 465 Hechinger Report readers who responded to our survey, with thoughtful feedback that is already informing our coverage of America’s math crisis. We welcome hearing from readers as we visit classrooms and campuses, digging into questions about what kind of math should be taught at what age, and how best to boost lagging performance, close racial achievement gaps and help students catch up after the pandemic.

“There are a lot of holes and gaps from distance learning. The math content got shrunk down and the fluency just wasn’t there. It’s heartbreaking.”

Giavanni Coleman, math teacher in Haywood, California

Several people pointed to gaps in availability of courses in STEM classes, which should not come as a surprise: Two out of five Black and Latino students surveyed for a recent joint report from the Education Trust and Equal Opportunity Schools said they have a passion for studying science, technology and engineering and want to go to college, yet only three percent were enrolled in AP STEM classes.

The issue of learning loss and recent NAEP test score declines – the largest ever recorded – also loomed large in survey responses, highlighting the devastating impact the pandemic had on students and families, in particular in schools that serve large numbers of Black and Latino students.

So did the issue of U.S. student performance compared with other countries: Our 15-year-olds rank behind 30 countries and one region on one international test, while our fourth graders trail 14 countries on another. So it makes sense that some teachers who answered the survey want to know how high-performing countries are teaching math, along with what cultural barriers might be in the way.  “Are there schools that replicate best practices of countries like Japan and Finland and demonstrate better outcomes?” one educator asked.

Related: Plunging NAEP scores make clear the long and difficult road ahead to pandemic recovery

Survey results also confirmed there is a lot of anxiety about math. Some of it arises from recent test scores showing dismal middle school performance: Students who started middle school early in the pandemic lost more ground in math than any other group and are still struggling. 

Fears that teachers are insufficiently trained in math and that poor math skills harm America’s competitiveness and weaken our ability to fill critical jobs came up often in our survey. So did worries that high schools are placing too much emphasis on calculus and not enough on practical skills like data analysis and statistics for an increasingly high-tech world.

Several readers noted that families need more support than ever in overcoming their own math fears, along with additional tools and strategies for playfully supporting and supplementing their children’s math knowledge. That means challenging age-old assumptions that some people simply aren’t good at math.

And some teachers had specific ideas about what must change in math education: Giavanni Coleman, a 20-year veteran who teaches fifth- and sixth-grade math in Hayward, California, told us that schools must build a stronger foundation in math early on, and wants to see more investment in teacher training and early childhood math to help infuse a love of numbers at a young age.

“It takes time, and money, and human capital and training,” Coleman told me in a follow-up conversation.

Coleman was also among the many teachers worried about pandemic learning loss. “There are a lot of holes and gaps from distance learning,” she said. “The math content got shrunk down and the fluency just wasn’t there. It’s heartbreaking.”

Here are a few top themes that concerned our readers:

  • Reducing anxiety or fear of math among students and helping them to understand why it matters. 
  • Highlighting the importance of basic arithmetic (addition, subtraction, multiplication, division) in math teaching and focusing on establishing strong foundations before advancing to more conceptual lessons.
  • Learning in more detail about what effective math instruction looks like for preschoolers and kindergarteners
  • Understanding why subjects like algebra and calculus have become so important in college admissions and whether statistics or data science should matter more, along with how curricula are chosen and which work best
  • Tracing how math instruction has changed throughout history and ensuring that math lessons aren’t outdated
  • Analyzing how math instruction and student performance changed after the introduction of the Common Core standards

Related: After common core a mysterious spike in failure rate among New York High School students

We also discovered common themes that concerned particular groups.

Parents were most likely to mention concerns about math curricula, math anxiety and their hope that math instruction would place greater emphasis on problem-solving instead of memorization and repetition.

Respondents from higher education were also most likely to mention reducing anxiety or fear of math among their students, along with the hope they can learn to both love math and understand why it matters to their careers.

And all groups worry that there aren’t enough sufficiently qualified and experienced math teachers, in part due to low pay and poor working conditions.

Teacher Ross believes in recruiting great math students to become math teachers and wants to put all students on track to take advanced math unless they opt out of it. They should then be required to take any classes they fail until they pass, she thinks.

“Are there schools that replicate best practices of countries like Japan and Finland and demonstrate better outcomes?”

Educator who replied to Hechinger’s survey

“We need to make sure kids understand that their decision to take or not take certain math classes will largely determine the economic opportunities that will be available to them,” she said.

The survey results will be enormously helpful, but one of the most important ways of improving math came from a student I contacted after speaking with Ross. Carla Edith Brayton was an undocumented immigrant from Mexico living in Texas when she landed in Ross’s math classes. She worked after school and nights at a local McDonald’s, and while she’d always been good at math and loved the subject, she often fell asleep in class and felt discouraged.

Ross never allowed her to give up and pushed her to apply for scholarships and attend college. Brayton is now 29, a civil engineer and mother of two, the first in her family to attend college – she graduated from the University of Texas at San Antonio in 2017 – and to own a home. She loves her job and said none of her success would have happened if Ross had not encouraged her.

“Someone simply took the time to notice and believed in me. That’s what changed my life,” Brayton told me, noting that she has found a way to pay it forward by speaking at school career days, describing her background and the higher-level math classes she might otherwise have been shut out of.

“Education is the key for all people,” she said. “It certainly was for me.”

This story about math education was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. The Gates Foundation has recently begun a major funding effort for math education projects around the country, and is among the many funders of The Hechinger Report. Sign up for our weekly newsletters.

The Hechinger Report provides in-depth, fact-based, unbiased reporting on education that is free to all readers. But that doesn't mean it's free to produce. Our work keeps educators and the public informed about pressing issues at schools and on campuses throughout the country. We tell the whole story, even when the details are inconvenient. Help us keep doing that.

Join us today.

Letters to the Editor

7 Letters

At The Hechinger Report, we publish thoughtful letters from readers that contribute to the ongoing discussion about the education topics we cover. Please read our guidelines for more information. We will not consider letters that do not contain a full name and valid email address. You may submit news tips or ideas here without a full name, but not letters.

By submitting your name, you grant us permission to publish it with your letter. We will never publish your email address. You must fill out all fields to submit a letter.

  1. If we concentrated on building true mathematical proficiency in our students, we would see improved student performance. At 7-12 that would mean picking our fewer big ideas (less of an overextended Common Core). We could open our students’ mathematical minds to mental math, innovative explorations, and time for real problem solving. We don’t need all students to learn the same mathematics. We need a citizenry with students who have different knowledges and viewpoints to bring to the table.

  2. Concentrate in building true Mathematical proficiency …There it is . In black and white the most used meaningless statement by very proficient and respected Mathematicians. Building true Mathematical proficiency has become an empty meaningless statement. There aint no mystery here….I have taught every level of high school Math there is from Algebra 1 to Calculus A.P. I have taught Students from very afluent educated families in California to ex convicts from prison. I have taught people from all over the world. The magic bullet that I have seen in 25+ years of teaching is a simple one: T-I-M-E. …Just like the stock market is not timing the market …It is Time In the market. Time doing Math …wrongly creates proficiency.

  3. Francisco,
    I share the idea that TIME is an important component, if it is well used time. If that time includes understanding concepts, becoming fluent at different procedures, learning different strategies to solve problems (mental math, algorithms, programs, modelling, etc. ), being able to explain your reasoning, and belief in your ability to tackle mathematics then I agree. Mathematical Proficiency has been usually defined as having “five components or strands:

    conceptual understanding—comprehension of mathematical concepts, operations, and relations

    procedural fluency—skill in carrying out procedures flexibly, accurately, efficiently, and appropriately

    strategic competence—ability to formulate, represent, and solve mathematical problems

    adaptive reasoning—capacity for logical thought, reflection, explanation, and justification

    productive disposition—habitual inclination to see mathematics as sensible, useful, and worthwhile, coupled with a belief in diligence and one’s own efficacy.”

    It came from a 2001 book referenced below.

    National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2001. Adding It Up: Helping Children Learn Mathematics. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.

    ps. I have taught school, workshops, and institutes all over for 40+ years and I don’t see many easy solutions to teaching mathematics. It would be fun to discuss these ideas with you some more.

  4. Time used well is a concept like …the sky is blue. i meant T-I-M-E. Simple used TIME even, wrongly produces mathematical minds. I have seen hundreds of inmigrants speaking English breaking every rule of grammar and comprehension yet because of time do eventually get their ideas across. I spent many years without the understanding the meaning of the word fasting yet I could still go to MacDonald in the morning to order breakfast and I would get breakfast. I would break my night fast and did not understand the deep meaning of such concept. I could pay for it, I could tweak it. I could buy another for my wife, I could even plan my commute by my f(breakfast) = …
    I am not against conceptual understanding. I just have seen many Mathematicians and Educators creating more profit out this concept than mathematical proficiency. Yet profit is good. I love the stock market.
    Conceptual Understanding is the order that an average mind produces when given TIME.
    I see Math education in the U.S. (I am from Venezuela) as a AA classroom full of people learning how to stay sober from a person who has never has that problem.
    Curriculum creators can not solve this little dilemma because they don’t even acknowledge the extent of its range. To me that is the problem and the insanity of trying the same approach with repeated ierations of the same.

  5. Thank you, The Hechinger Report, for this compelling column on improving math education in America. It highlights the urgency of the issue and inspires us to take action. Well-articulated and informative!

  6. The current high school curriculum of algebra, geometry and trigonometry was first developed at an all boys private school in Philadelphia at the glclise of the 19th Century. The goal was to prepare those young men to become civil engineers. The fact that more than century later, the curriculum remains almost intact regardless of what students plan to study in college is testament to the fact that the faculty in our schools continue to model for students that adults can’t learn from experience.

    We teach mathematics as if it was a foreign language that no one speaks and can’t be used for anything. The three years of high school math consists of thousands of different operations that are taught in the absence of meaningful application. To make matters worse, too many colleges have made high school math performance the gatekeeper for admissions.

    Every student needs basic computational skills. Beyond that, we need to revamp the entire secondary school math curriculum to decide which concepts every educated member of our society needs to be exposed to and how those concepts are applied in everyday life or to enhance students’ ability to better understand the world around them. Anything beyond this can either be elective or taught in college.

Submit a letter

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *