Schools face a math problem: Money is running out and kids are still behind (2024)

Black marker in hand, Nick Baar returned to the whiteboard. The newly minted math tutor wrote an equation for the eighth-graders in front of him:

25 x 199

The rules were simple: No calculators or pencils allowed. Baar wanted to see if his students at Perry Street Preparatory, a charter school in Northeast Washington, could solve the problem in their heads. They had breezed through an earlier problem — 25 x 200 — but now appeared stumped. The group sat in silence.

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One boy spoke up. He knew 25 x 200 = 5,000, so he guessed that 25 x 199 could equal 4,999. Baar paused before breaking the equation down into smaller chunks, offering a reminder that multiplication is just adding the same number over and over again. The group slowly caught on to the pattern until they produced the right answer: 4,975.

“I know that they can do it,” he said after the session. “It’s a lot of giving them encouragement.”

At Perry Street Prep, each of its roughly 450 students received extra help in math this past year, whether in a tutoring group like the one Baar led or more time with a teacher — an intensive push to regain academic ground lost during the pandemic. Children across the country returned from virtual learning much further behind in math — a subject in which each skill builds on another and gaps in understanding can leave students lost — than they were in reading.

Between fall 2019 and 2022, national test scores sank four points in reading and nine points in math for 13-year-olds — the largest drop in math in half a century. And while scores have started to improve, researchers at the testing nonprofit NWEA estimated last summer that the average American eighth-grader would still need the equivalent of nine more months of schooling to catch up in math, compared with seven extra months in reading.

With a full academic recovery still out of reach — and the billions of dollars in pandemic relief that fueled attempts to catch kids up running out — educators worry they must turn things around fast, or else a big cohort of children will be ill-prepared for higher-level math courses, college and ultimately the kinds of sought-after jobs in technology and science that could give them more financial stability and propel the economy.

“It’s pulling kids constantly: small groups, high-impact tutoring, giving them what they need,” said Principal Rachel Crouch. “That’s how we’re going to move the needle.”

Disparities deepen

Christine Baker, a fourth-grade math teacher in Anne Arundel County in Maryland, saw signs of struggle this past school year. Normally, students come in with a solid grasp of addition and basic multiplication facts, which is essential for a year that will be spent learning fractions and how to divide big numbers.

It’s typical that kids start the year having trouble with multiplying some of the larger numbers — 7 x 6 can be a tricky one, she said. But this past year, many students had a hard time with small numbers, too.

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“Multiplication is driven by addition, and they don’t know their addition facts because those are the early grades that they missed [in-person] because of the pandemic,” Baker said.

Experts are still working to understand why students fell so far behind in math.

School leaders point to several factors, including a shortage of qualified math teachers during the pandemic and the sequential nature in which math is taught. Teachers said it was difficult to convey concepts better understood through hands-on activities or in-person discussions — such as solving for an unknown variable in an algebra problem — via a computer screen.

“Kids lost a whole year, in some cases, of one specific foundational [skill] that isn’t really retaught in the next years,” said Kelly Smith, Perry Street Prep’s director of operations.

And the discomfort many families felt toward math meant some students had to fend for themselves. Parents can generally provide reading help, but “with math, it’s like, ‘Eh, I don’t know about that,’” said Michele Stites, an associate professor of early-childhood education at the University of Maryland at Baltimore County.

Children missed the equivalent of a third of a grade level in reading and half of a grade level in math between 2019 and 2022, according to experts from Harvard and Stanford universities who studied third- through eighth-graders in 30 states. (Students have since recovered some of the loss, they said.) But in districts including Kansas City, Kan., and Boston, losses in math were greater, according to researchers. Students in Fairfax County, the largest district in Virginia, were more than a year behind in 2023.

Meanwhile, the pandemic baked in existing racial inequities, particularly at the middle school level. Black and Hispanic middle-schoolers — who, on average, performed lower on tests than White peers before the pandemic — need the most time to get back to their pre-coronavirus normal, according to an analysis from NWEA.

“We have consistently seen, from the earliest phase of the pandemic, that although everyone seems to be impacted, those impacts were unequally felt,” said Karyn Lewis, director of the Center for School and Student Progress at NWEA.

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At Perry Street Prep, which goes from prekindergarten to eighth grade, student performance since virtual learning has also been lopsided, Crouch said. About 27 percent of her students are reading on grade level, compared with 30 percent in 2019, test data shows. Just over 7 percent are on grade level in math, down from 14 percent before the pandemic. The city’s traditional public school system, which educates half of D.C.’s schoolchildren, has seen similar trends.

Officials expect to see improvements in this spring’s round of testing, the results of which will probably be made public in late summer. Even so, D.C. kids are years away from making a full recovery, estimates Josh Boots, executive director of EmpowerK12, a local education research group.

To speed things up, D.C. Public Schools started holding events to help parents assist their kids at home. Officials have spent millions in pandemic aid on tutoring, summer programs, teacher training and new curriculums to ramp up learning.

“We are doing our best to preserve the resources that we know have been effective in supporting our young people,” said Lewis D. Ferebee, the district’s chancellor. “We’ve built the foundation. We purchased the curriculum. We have a lot of the materials” needed, he said.

Meanwhile, the $33 million in federal relief that funded citywide intensive math and reading tutoring for the past three years is dwindling. Officials plan to spend a fraction of that amount to keep as many programs as possible next year, but some schools will have to scour for other funding.

“You know, piecing together all the money we can find,” said Smith, of Perry Street Prep. Data provided by the school shows that students who received tutoring and attended class consistently showed more than two months’ worth of growth each month.

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School leaders in other parts of the country are also trying to figure out how to continue programs launched or expanded in the pandemic. In Arizona, where math proficiency at the end of the 2022-2023 school year still lagged behind 2019 levels, officials clawed back millions in pandemic money from nonprofit organizations they felt weren’t delivering results.

The state then used the money — about $50 million — to expand tutoring to more students who need the most help, said Tom Horne, the state’s superintendent of public instruction. “It’s not enough for all. But to the extent they make progress toward proficiency, then hopefully their teachers can bring them the rest of the way.”

Making everyone a ‘math person’

Some experts say tutoring isn’t the only answer. Even before the pandemic, American students had been struggling in math and had been trailing behind some of their peers abroad.

Sometimes, instruction is the culprit. While researchers publicly clashed over the best way to teach children how to read — spawning the decades-long “reading wars” and leading states in recent years to adopt research-backed phonics-based practices — there has been a quieter battle over how to teach math. Those debates have found new energy as school leaders try to find the best ways to catch kids up in the subject.

Some camps think math is taught best when students have a conceptual understanding of the subject — kids, for example, should not only know how to find the area of a triangle, but why the formula works. The teacher should be more of a facilitator than a lecturer and encourage students to problem-solve on their own, they say.

Others favor a more top-down and traditional approach — likely to be the way many parents learned math — in which teachers lecture students on the procedures and formulas they need to know, and then the kids memorize and replicate.

Experts generally support some mix of the two. Still, many classrooms remain stuck on the older approach, in part because it’s the way they learned math.

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That could be changing. In D.C.’s traditional public schools, Ferebee wants “everybody to be a math person” and has adopted curriculums he says emphasize a deeper understanding of the subject. But that approach requires updated methods of teaching even basic skills — what parents often critique as “new math.”

For example, when solving the equation 75 – 29, parents may notice their kids drawing tiny squares that represent those numbers — a trick meant to help visualize what it means to subtract.

“We want them to understand that instead of borrowing a one ... this is how we think about regrouping,” Ferebee said, referring to the traditional way of lining numbers up and subtracting one from the other. “And this is why we do it this way, because it will deepen students’ understanding.”

In other districts, pandemic relief funds are being used to send educators back to school or partner them with teaching coaches. In Missouri, which has seen math scores that are close to — and in some cases higher than — pre-pandemic performance, state leaders sent teachers to math specialist programs. Jessica Golden, a teacher of 10 years, said it has helped shift her focus away from drilling procedures.

“Memorizing the processes only gets you so far when you don’t fully understand why we use that process,” she said. She added that students missed out on a deeper understanding of some concepts during virtual learning, when they couldn’t use tactile classroom tools called manipulatives, such as plastic counters or place value blocks, to help them visualize abstract ideas.

Brittany Shoup, a special-education teacher in Pittsburgh, said teachers dropped manipulatives off at students’ homes and experimented with virtual alternatives. But she can still see gaps.

“I almost had to treat them like they never went to first grade when they came into my room in second grade,” she said of the students she taught when virtual learning ended. Now, those kids are fourth-graders. “We really are making up that time because we need to make sure they have a solid foundation. Once you get to that higher-level math, everything needs to be solid.”

But she’s optimistic. “Some things, they’re just going to learn as they go,” she said. “There is absolutely hope.”

Making math relevant

The changes in the classroom also come as educators know their students need strong math skills now to be set up for many good jobs down the road.

Students are flocking toward degrees in computer science, engineering and health. Interest in the humanities, meanwhile, is dwindling. Ferebee, in D.C., has a goal of preparing every student for Algebra I by eighth grade, which gives them more time to take the advanced math courses they need for college.

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Derrick Gooding, who teaches middle school math at Friendship Public Charter School’s Blow Pierce campus, reminds his students of this frequently. “The more math you take, the more money you can make,” he tells them.

His students are outperforming their peers in math across the city, according to data provided by the school. Officials point to the school’s culture and approach to teaching math that emphasizes student exploration. Gooding says he tries his best to make the subject relevant, even for those who don’t see themselves in math careers.

“When am I using a function? Well, don’t you realize that your car is a function and you are the independent variable to use that?” Gooding said.

Shatavia Kelley, who teaches third grade at Friendship-Blow Pierce, tries to cultivate an early love for math. About 36 percent of children in the elementary school can do grade-level math, compared with about 29 percent citywide.

On a morning last fall, Kelley asked her class to help her solve a problem: If Tara brought 825 milliliters of water on her hiking trip, and then finished with 132 milliliters, how much did she drink?

The children were anxious to spurt out answers. But Kelley instructed them to compare work and discuss the best way to solve the equation.

“A lot of times we’re talking to them, but we have to give them the space to ask the questions to their friends. Throughout the years, I’ve grown and learned that they learn a lot from each other,” Kelley said. “You rarely see that in a math class.”

Story editing by April Bethea. Photo editing by Mark Miller. Copy editing by Vanessa Larson. Design by Stephanie Hays.

Schools face a math problem: Money is running out and kids are still behind (2024)
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