Mathematics education currently faces unique challenges. While U.S. students persistently have lower math scores than their peers from other countries, math and data fluency are more critical than ever. Foundational math skills and data literacy are necessary for general life skills — not just those seeking to understand detailed news and information or pursue a degree in finance, business or economics. Yet, students in the U.S. still struggle, overall, with this crucial subject.
Remote learning only exacerbates the problem; a spring 2020 survey by the EdWeek Research Center found educators were most concerned about students losing ground in math than any other subject during virtual, pandemic learning. Thankfully, mathematics educators are working to confront such challenges and improve student scholarship. The following five issues are some of the critical topics they are addressing.
1. The Myth of the ‘Math Gene’
In a blog post for the American Mathematical Society, Brie Finegold addresses how the myth of the “math gene” does a disservice to math education. Perpetuating the idea that some students are “naturally” good at math means most students assume that, unless they are quickly grasping math lessons, they’re doomed to fail. Instead, Finegold urges educators to keep in mind that all students can do math and that learners might need to be reminded of that with encouragement. Additionally, educators should also urge their colleagues not to discount math curriculum for special education students and English-language learners.
2. Confronting Anxiety
Many adults would probably feel nervous if asked to solve a math problem at a whiteboard in front of their peers — so imagine how kids’ nerves react to that request. Educators are increasingly understanding the role of emotions in shaping learning outcomes: “math anxiety” can be a real hindrance for students. In a 2020 Education Week Research Center survey of U.S. teachers, 67% of respondents said math anxiety is a problem for their students. Pilot programs ask students to reflect on their feelings and attitudes toward math and develop positive emotions and confidence around math education.
3. Racial Equity in Math Education
The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics acknowledges that learning gaps exist in the U.S. math education system. These vary across racial, ethnic, linguistic, gender, and socioeconomic groups, with students of color generally lacking access to the highest-quality math education.
As the Brookings Institution has noted, this unequal access to key educational resources, including skilled teachers and quality curriculum, helps explain different educational outcomes for children in minority groups. Funding disparities between schools in wealthy and poor communities exacerbate this inequality. Math educators are now grappling with extending the highest-quality education to students, during a pandemic, in socioeconomically disadvantaged schools.
4. The Role of Fun
How fun should math be? Kids need to know how to add and multiply, whether or not it’s entertaining — but making a subject exciting to learn is a hot topic among educators. Some prominent voices in the field assert that the rigid, dry, and theoretical way most high school math is taught in the U.S. suppresses student interest in the subject and doesn’t serve them well long term.
An EdSource article illustrates findings by researcher Kirk Walters about math curriculum standards explained: “Math is presented as a set of procedures that are often sort of disconnected from their underlying concepts and from the real world … ” Making math education more responsive, practical, and maybe even fun will inspire more students to engage with math concepts both inside and outside the classroom.
5. How to Effectively Use Technology
Technology opens multiple avenues for creative and interactive mathematics instruction, but it can also seem like a can of worms. Whether referring to which devices — tablets, smartphones, mobile apps, etc. — are most effective in the classroom or concerns about student privacy and internet-connected devices, technology for math education can seem like an overwhelming topic. Some experts are developing frameworks, such as the Technological Pedagogical Content Knowledge (TPACK), to help educators assess whether certain tech approaches are appropriate for use in their math curriculum.
It is undeniable that the U.S. education system is still working out ways to best teach math to students of all backgrounds, and the COVID-19 pandemic has further complicated this discussion. However, an advanced education degree in curriculum and instruction can equip you with the necessary knowledge to contribute to a solution.
Brookings: The Achievement Gap in Education: Racial Segregation Versus Segregation by Poverty
How Schools Are Putting Equity First in Math Instruction
How to Teach Math Students With Disabilities, English-Language Learners
Who’s Afraid of Math? Turns Out, Lots of Students