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Far too often, talented math students at schools in low-income communities barely have access to grade-level work, let alone advanced curricula. Common obstacles include high teacher turnover, insufficient resources and overcrowded classes. Math teachers must ensure that diverse groups of learners acquire a basic understanding of the material, and they may not have the capacity to meet the needs of their most accelerated students.

Rather than letting these high-aptitude students flounder, we must find ways to nurture their talent. Students from higher-income high schools graduate from college with majors in science, technology, engineering and math at twice the rate (16 percent) of those from low-income high schools (8 percent).

Often, a lack of mathematical preparation and socal-emotional challenges prevent students from completing STEM majors, despite their declared interests in such fields. But the problem begins long before college.

To envision themselves as future computer scientists, engineers, programmers or mathematicians, talented students in low-income communities need exposure, opportunities and support from a young age.

Related: OPINION: From a former teacher, four ways to take the drama out of math class

In short, they need access to more rigorous instruction and the types of enrichment commonly available to their more affluent peers. Here are six strategies that teachers, coaches and administrators can use to try to encourage students to go beyond what their schools offer.

First, involve parents: One of the most important steps that teachers can take is to get parental buy-in. Parents want to see their children do well, but often are not plugged into the enrichment opportunities that are common in higher-income communities. If educators share with parents information about summer programs, community-based organizations or online resources, parents may be willing to take the next step to get their children involved. One resource to explore is the American Mathematical Society, which curates a list of STEM programs across many grade levels. While some programs do cost money, others offer substantial or even full financial aid based on need.

Second, partner with outside organizations: Schools can augment what they’re able to offer on their own by partnering with outside organizations. Bridge to Enter Advanced Mathematics (BEAM), where I am executive director of programs in Los Angeles, works with schools in low-income communities in Los Angeles and New York City to provide high-aptitude students with rigorous math enrichment through summer and school-year programs.

Third, connect with local universities: Local universities often provide academic enrichment programs within their communities, but some of these programs may fly under the radar, like math circles and MESA. In addition, many community colleges offer dual-enrollment programs that allow students to take classes for college credit while they’re still in high school. Educators can reach out to local universities to explore what’s available and connect students with these types of programs.

Fourth, leverage online programs: A variety of free online programs offer challenging academic work as well, such as Alcumus on the “Art of Problem Solving” website. Designed for students seeking deeper math challenges, this program explores wide-ranging topics and problems that promote critical thinking. It is an excellent supplement to the math taught in school and gives accelerated students ample opportunity to grapple with more challenging material.

Fifth, build a list of resources: Compiling a list of resources is a time-intensive project initially, but it’s well worth the effort. By spending some time each year updating resources and adding new ones, teachers can create a long-lasting collection that will benefit students and families for years to come.

Finally, look beneath the surface: Some students may not readily reveal their math aptitude in class, so it may take patience and creativity to discover it. Their grades may seem to reflect a lack of interest, but teachers shouldn’t overlook the possibility that their performance instead reveals how bored they are with the math taught in class. Often these students don’t know how to advocate for themselves, or they don’t have the confidence to do so. Engaging them with math puzzles or non-traditional problems may reveal that they have mathematical talent that ought to be nurtured.

Related: OPINION: Numbers evoke joy and wonder, why doesn’t math class?

Differentiated instruction includes making space for the strongest students and ensuring that they are adequately challenged to further their thinking. Sometimes that space is beyond the classroom. However, talented students from underserved communities often lack access to external resources and fall behind their more affluent peers.

This point becomes more salient when we think about how we are preparing our underserved youth to develop the skills and capacities they’ll need for the jobs of the future. Available jobs in STEM are expected to increase by 13 percent, compared to 9 percent for non-STEM jobs, by 2027. Recognizing the talents of high-potential students and helping create pathways to the educational enrichment they need to prepare for futures in STEM are shared responsibilities that can make all the difference in helping influence the course of students’ educations and, ultimately, their life pursuits.

This story about nurturing high-aptitude math students in under-resourced schools was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up here for our newsletter.

Jacob Castaneda is executive director of programs in Los Angeles for Bridge to Enter Advanced Mathematics (BEAM), a nonprofit dedicated to creating pathways for underserved students to become scientists, mathematicians, engineers and computer scientists. Prior to joining BEAM, Castaneda taught high school math in South Central Los Angeles and enrichment math in Compton, California.

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Jacob Castaneda is executive director of Los Angeles programs for  Bridge to Enter Advanced Mathematics (BEAM), a nonprofit  dedicated to creating pathways for underserved students to become scientists,...

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  1. Is the U.S. Falling Behind in STEM Education?

    For decades, the U.S. was a powerhouse in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) sectors.

    Today, many believe we’ve fallen behind countries like Japan, South Korea, and China in the top countries for technological expertise.

    Countries With the Highest Technological Expertise
    Ranked by perception

    1. Japan
    2. South Korea
    3. China
    4. United States
    5. Germany
    6. Russia
    7. United Kingdom
    8. Singapore
    9. Israel
    10. Switzerland

    Several factors point to the US falling behind in STEM education:

    ● US ranked 13th on Mathematics and 31st on Science test scores internationally
    ● Only 34% of 8th graders and 41% of 4th graders were at or above average in mathematics
    ● Only 35% of 8th graders and 36% of 4th graders were at or above average in science
    ● More than 1 million STEM jobs are unfilled

    Pew research found that “only 29% of the general public ranked U.S. STEM education for grades K-12 as above average or the best in the world”.

    Proficiency in STEM fields is important to a country’s economics, innovation, security, and global competitiveness. Advancements in STEM can lead to the next big technological advancement, finding a cure for cancer, or even ending world hunger.

    STEM sector jobs make up a large part of the overall U.S. market and their importance continues to grow. Between 2021 and 2031, U.S. STEM jobs are estimated to grow by 10.8% compared to 4.9% for non-STEM occupations.

    However, STEM education is not keeping up with the employment gap. It’s possible that 3.5 million STEM jobs will need to be staffed by 2025, including vital jobs in healthcare and technology. More than 1 million of those jobs are projected to go unfilled, but, why?

    Part of the reason is the state of U.S. STEM education.

    While science and math are in the core K-12 curriculum, other important subjects, like computer science and engineering, are left out. Even in the core subjects, the US is falling behind.

    In the latest Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) test for 15-year-old students by the OECD the US ranked 13th on Mathematics and 31st on Science test scores.

    In 2019, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), a standardized test administered to US K-12 students, found that only 34% of 8th graders and 41% of 4th graders were at or above average in mathematics. By grade 12, proficiency has decreased to 24% in mathematics and 22% in science.

    In addition, we’ve made little progress with STEM education in the last decade.

    In the State of U.S. Science and Engineering 2022 report, average scores for U.S. fourth and eighth graders on a national assessment of mathematics improved from 1990 to 2007, but there was no overall measurable improvement in mathematics scores from 2007 to 2019.

    We are also falling behind in computer science and engineering and are among the countries that do not currently require computer science education.

    In 2020, Brookings studied online evidence of in-school computer science education across 219 countries. They found that:

    ● 44 (~20%) mandate that schools offer CS as an elective or required course
    ● 15 (~ 7%) offer CS in select schools and some subnational jurisdictions (states, provinces, etc.)
    ● 160 (~73%) are only piloting CS education programs or had no available evidence of in-school CS education

    Unlike countries such as Korea, Japan, China, Australia, and England, as of 2022, the U.S. has not implemented national CS mandates.

    According to Code.org, only 27 states currently require all high schools to offer computer science. While up from 35% in 2018, as of 2021, only 51% of high school were even offering computer science courses.

    Unfortunately, several factors stand in the way of improved STEM education, such as costs, equity, and qualified instructors.

    Costs
    Some states have funds dedicated to STEM education, but the cost to make it required across grade levels would still be significant. Implementing a STEM curriculum can incur costs like computers, labs, and training for teachers. For students, earning a degree in computer science can also be costly. CodeLikeaGirl estimated that a 4-year university degree in STEM would cost between $45,000 and $60,000.

    Equity
    Studies have shown that there are disparities in STEM education for women, members of minority groups, and economically disadvantaged people. These may be a result of issues like gender discrimination, systemic racism, and other biases. This lack of equity means that a large portion of the population does not engage in or have access to STEM education.

    Qualified Instructors
    Many school districts already face a shortage of qualified teachers and even more so for low-income schools. The STEM teacher shortage is a national problem. The Educator Supply and Demand Report 2020-21 shows that all math and science education, along with computer science and technology education, have a shortage of teachers.

    K-12 STEM education is the foundation of secondary and postsecondary education in these fields. Kids need to start learning STEM early to build their interest and confidence.

    With little or no exposure in K-12 to STEM topics, students are not prepared for college and graduate level studies, therefore creating the employment gap. As a result, our workforce will lack the vital skills to fill these important positions.

    So, what strategies can we use to improve the state of STEM education in the US?

    1. National programs and policies
    Improvement in programs and policies at the national level will be required to meet STEM needs. The U.S. Department of Education has set out some programs to improve STEM education. This includes federal grants for educators and students and the STEM Education Strategic Plan. You can see the 2021 progress report here.

    2. Broader access to STEM education
    All students, regardless of factors like gender, race, and income level, should have access to STEM education. Students need to be provided with equitable opportunities at an early age so they can prepare for secondary and postsecondary STEM education.

    3. Train more qualified instructors
    Currently there is a national teacher shortage, but it will be important to expand and strengthen the pool of STEM teachers. Not only do we need more competent STEM teachers in all areas, students need diverse role models and mentors in STEM.

    As it stands, the U.S. appears to be falling behind other countries in STEM education. Without advancements in STEM, the U.S. will not have the skills to compete on an international level. While it is a significant educational challenge to improve STEM education in our country, it is one that is worth solving for future generations.

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