Students’ Math Outcomes Have Plummeted. Here’s What to Do.

January 2, 2024

By Tracy Fray-Oliver

Math education across the country is in urgent need of redesign, and recent NAEP scores confirm there is no time to waste, with students showing the largest decline in math scores for 4th and 8th graders since 1990.

Recent findings from the EdWeek Research Center offer school leaders a good place to start. They note the deep tension between theory and practice in math education. This persistent disconnect leads too many teachers to grapple with translating complex pedagogical approaches into tangible classroom outcomes, often impacting student learning.

As leader of the Bank Street Education Center, a key focus of my work is improving math education for students in schools across New York City. Through partnerships with school leaders and educators in pre-K through high school settings, our work has uncovered three crucial strategies essential to improving math learning: increased instructional time, investments in teachers’ continuous improvement, and centering student voices.

These interconnected strategies reinforce and complement each other. They are curriculum-agnostic and provide school leaders with specific structures and processes that build off the existing strengths of teachers and students to help drive deeper levels of student learning.

1. Increased Instructional Time for Students

At the heart of the theory-practice gap is the simple truth that time is paramount in learning. Mastering mathematical concepts requires time for immersion, thoughtful exploration, and the practicing of the concepts. Research consistently demonstrates that increased time spent on learning activities correlates with improved academic outcomes.

In math, increased instructional time for students provides educators with the breathing space necessary to reinforce concepts, where they have the time to use a variety of teaching methods.Strategies include restructuring the school day, strategic scheduling, leveraging technology for personalized learning, and offering targeted support for students needing interventions.

We’ve seen firsthand results: an MDRC study found that children in New York City who received two years of early math interventions implemented by Bank Street in pre-K and kindergarten had improved 3rd grade math-test scores. By implementing the supplemental math program High 5s, students were able to meet in small groups for 30 minutes three times a week for playlike activities tailored to their developmental level. We’ve estimated an effect equivalent to closing about 40 percent of the achievement gap between children from families with low incomes and their peers from higher-income families.

2. Continuous Improvement Processes for Teacher Teams

Teachers are the linchpin between theory and practice. Educational theories are only as effective as real-time implementation across diverse math contexts and settings. Continuous improvement processes empower educators with the tools and collaborative structures needed to bridge this gap.

This work includes creating spaces for teachers to identify instructional barriers and their root causes, test out research-based theories, analyze students’ data, share implementation strategies, and collectively decide what actions can lead to improved student outcomes and benefits. This investment also fosters teachers’ efficacy and creates a culture of learning and adaptability required to meet the new teaching and learning demands.

In Brooklyn, we are working with a network of middle schools to increase the percentage of Black, Latinx, and students experiencing poverty who are prepared for upper-grades mathematics and on track for success in high school by the end of 8th grade. By bringing together vertical teams of teachers and their school and district leaders to receive math professional development and coaching focused on their improvement theories, we’ve seen promising growth. Early research shows positive feedback from teachers regarding implementation and its impact on practice, with many reporting that they now have more insight into how to decrease student fears and anxieties around math and a deeper understanding of how to meaningfully improve discussions in math class by helping students build foundational skills and math vocabulary.

3. Centering Student Voices

As we work to balance education theory and practice in math, too often, student voice is left out of the equation. The practical application of any pedagogical approach requires a deep understanding of who students are and how they make sense of and interact with the content. Centering students’ lived experiences and perspectives allows educators to understand how students learn best and apply that knowledge in dynamic and complex classroom settings.

In partnership with the Yonkers public schools, we have integrated student-empathy interviews and a student-voice survey across 22 schools to help improve how teachers approach feedback for students. Students offer their experiences and needs as math learners, and teachers leverage that information to determine which research-based theories to implement and how to adapt them for their students. A recent case study from PERTS showed an increase in student engagement and an improvement across other learning conditions, including learning goals and classroom community.

As we look ahead, it is clear that a more nuanced approach to math education is required. With the right leadership, these three strategies—increased instructional time, continuous improvement for teachers, and centering student voice—bridge the gap between theory and practice for math educators and are quickly scalable in schools across the country. Through this work, we can create more effective learning environments for students and build the future of math education we hope to see.