Math learning taking a hit during COVID

New program demonstrating how gains can be made

AS WE NEAR the one-year mark of the unprecedented disruption to our public education system wrought by the pandemic, we are grappling with what we have lost and what we have learned. While it’s still too early to determine the total effects that remote learning will have on student learning, testing data from this fall is proving instructive.

In a November report, Northwest Evaluation Association compared the results of more than 4.4 million students in grades 3-8 who took the MAP (Measure of Academic Progress) Growth test in fall 2020 to the results of their peers who were tested in fall 2019. The researchers found no difference in reading levels, but an average 5-to-10 percentile-point difference in math, with black and Hispanic students in upper elementary grades experiencing the greatest learning losses. Parents, who now have front row seats in their homes to their children’s education, have also shared concerns about their kids’ math learning in recent polls.

Math education has too long played second – or third – fiddle to other content areas. Literacy understandably has been a focus, but even when it comes to STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education, the “M” for math is often an afterthought. As with other areas, COVID has exacerbated the issues we already faced in math education, including the fact that only one-third of Boston Public School eighth graders reached proficiency in math pre-pandemic.  It’s time to train a renewed focus on math education and what it takes to ensure students have the numeracy skills they need to be successful in college, career, and life.

Despite the fact that early numeracy is a bigger predictor than early literacy when it comes to long-term outcomes, students still spend less time learning math and teachers still receive less training in its content and pedagogy.  We have examples of what can work to not only improve student math outcomes but also the way we teach it. For the past five years, EdVestors has embarked on a multi-year effort to improve math teaching and learning in the middle grades, 3-8.

The effort, called Zeroing in on Math, has increased access to math technology tools for approximately 4,000 students and 140 teachers in 15 Boston schools.  Teachers and school leaders are supported to develop the systems, structures, and pedagogical knowledge to integrate the tech tools and strategically to support instruction. This provides teachers the flexibility to work with individual and small groups of students to personalize student instruction. It allows teachers to customize lessons to the individual needs of each student, making learning more equitable across the classroom.

We have learned that sustained support of educators is key to improvement, which we have seen via a rigorous evaluation of Zeroing in on Math’s work. This isn’t a quick fix, but we have the evidence to show that investing over the long-term matters. In a recent evaluation completed by the Education Development Center, positive trends in student learning outcomes emerged when their teachers participated for three consecutive years.  The students of these teachers scored significantly higher on assessments and the classrooms these educators taught were higher growth as compared with students and classrooms of teachers who had participated for just one year in Zeroing in on Math.

We’re far enough along, now, that we can analyze results to determine what strategies are working well and why. Going forward, other schools and districts could adopt the proven strategies from Zeroing in on Math, using them as a roadmap to math proficiency going forward. As we set our sights on the other side of this pandemic, we have much to do to reimagine education and our approaches. Math learning must be a focus, not simply by focusing on the learning our students need in the short term, but to ensure the foundation is set for students over the long term.

Meet the Author
Of course math is crucial for engineers, nurses, mathematicians, and other critical STEM field workers, but studies also show that mathematical precocity early in life predicts later creative contributions and leadership across a wide range of occupations. We also know that high school math performance predicts post-secondary success more broadly.  We must start with the will and vision to respond to the needs surrounding math learning for students, and that will take all of us who care about the education of our students – policymakers, business leaders, educators, families, and students themselves – to make this possible.

Marinell Rousmaniere is president and CEO of EdVestors, a nonprofit school improvement organization that combines strategic philanthropy, education expertise, and implementation support to help schools create the conditions for school change. To learn more about Zeroing in on Math, click here.