WWL: New Research Shows Overwhelming Support for Improving Math Education

Bob Hughes
Blog Post

When I supported a network of public schools in New York City, talking with parents, teachers, and students was my best source of information. To be sure, student performance data was critical for assessing what was working (or not) at network schools. But that data needed context--visiting classrooms, talking to teachers, and listening to parents—to truly understand how we could improve student achievement. Listening was key.

I believe the same is true at the Gates Foundation. As we focus on K-12 math education, we are excited to listen and learn about what we can do to increase math achievement. It is understanding this context—what’s working, what isn’t, and what our critical partners believe needs to change—that enables us to be effective. 

And that’s why we partnered with the Global Strategy Group to conduct research asking how the general public, parents, and teachers feel about the state of math education and what, if anything, needs to change to ensure that our research-based strategy resonates with this key constituency.

The good news (and maybe a big relief!) is that it does. Global Strategy Group’s analysis shows the public believes math is the subject most in need of improving, in terms of how we deliver math education to students. In fact, parents across racial demographic groups believe that their own child would be more likely to excel in math class if it felt more relevant, engaging, and applicable to the “real world.” 

Parents, teachers, and the general public widely see a disconnect between the K-12 math education they believe our young people need to thrive in life and the one students are actually getting. And the solution they point to most is making math education more relevant for students and more connected to the real world.

We agree, and that’s why we’re working with product developers, researchers, schools, and districts to deepen our collective understanding of student motivation, engagement, and persistence in math. We’re also supporting the development of high-quality instructional materials that can engage students across populations and in different contexts. We look forward to sharing more of this work with you as we continue to make investments in our math strategy.

Let me confess to one surprise over the last few years—the foundation’s focus on math is some of the most exciting work I have done in my long career. Math permeates our world, be it shaping our jobs, influencing our politics, animating our electronic games, or explaining our social networks. Math is practical: aiding efforts to buy a house or choose medical care for ourselves or a loved one. But I also increasingly love math for a different, personal reason. As Galileo said hundreds of years ago: “Mathematics is the language in which God has written the universe.” For me, math is increasingly a key to understanding the natural world, something as simple as the fractals of a pinecone or something even more exciting, the origins of our universe. Parents are right to say—to demand —that everyone should have access to this powerful language and set of tools, and no one should be left out.

So let’s do this... we are in it together.

To read a summary of the findings, you can view a fact sheet here. The full report from the Global Strategy Group is here. 

Background on Our Approach to Support K-12 Math Education

These findings underscore the importance of our effort to center on K-12 math education over the next decade, with a particular focus on improving outcomes for Black and Latino students and students from low-income backgrounds. These students are often furthest from the high-quality curriculum, experienced teachers, and supports like tutoring that we know are so critical to student success.

This research builds on the existing evidence, which shows how important it is for students to succeed in math. But too often the math classroom feels like a chore and a barrier, which leads to students losing motivation and failing to persist in their learning. From very early ages, students are divided into “math people” and “non-math” people when we know that all students can succeed in math.

The impact of this divide is devastating: Those who pass Algebra I by ninth grade are twice as likely to graduate from high school and more likely to get a college degree and a well-paying career. 

This was true before the pandemic, and we know the last several years have had significant impacts on student learning. The most recent NAEP data was abysmal in math, showing an eight-point decline in math for eighth graders, the steepest decline reported, and for students of color and students from low-income backgrounds, it was even worse. And the NAEP Long-Term Trend Assessment showed average math scores for nine-year-olds declined seven points between 2020 and 2022. This was the first ever score decline in mathematics. Math scores for Black students declined 13 points compared to eight points for Latino students and five points for white students. Research shows that not only do these gaps widen as students progress through school, but 90% of parents believe their child is currently at grade level in reading and math when data show proficiency is closer to only 30 to 50 percent in some cities. Read more about this data from Learning Heroes here.

All of this underscores the deep sense of urgency we feel about this work.

We need to look more closely at how our students are performing and the approaches that will be the most effective not just in recovering unfinished learning but in helping students truly develop a love of mathematics. Our K-12 math strategy has a few key tenants to address this need.

First, we’re supporting interactive, personalized digital instructional materials and tools that are intuitive for students and teachers to use and rooted in the importance of motivation, engagement, and persistence in helping student succeed.

Second, we want to ensure more math teachers receive strong pre-service preparation and ongoing professional learning that aligns with the high-quality curriculum they’re using in their classrooms.

Third, we will work to support school districts to implement models and practices that support coherent math instruction, building on the lessons we’ve learned from our Networks for School Improvement investments.

Fourth, -- we will support efforts to transform high school math pathways and ensure more options around different types of mathematics.  Calculus is critical for some students and should be modernized along with increasing access – particularly for students who want to pursue STEM careers.

Lastly, we’ll continue to support research and development and help bridge the gap between research on what works and what actually happens in math classrooms.

As we invest in improving K-12 math education for all students over the next decade, we’re committed to using this research to inform our work—and to focus on making the math classroom more engaging for students and relevant to the real world, which will not only help them develop a love and appreciation of mathematics, but also set them up for future success in whichever career path they choose.


Gates Analysis Deck