International tests scores released this month provide further evidence that U.S. students are behind where they should be in math, a problem that has huge implications for their success in school and beyond.
For 15-year-olds in the United States, math scores on the Program for International Student Assessment fell 13 points from 2018. In the test administered in 37 countries that are members of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, plus 44 other partner countries, the average math score fell by about 15 points.
The news follows sweeping declines in math scores for students around the country on the latest Nation's Report Card.
We didn't see the same declines in reading, a subject that has garnered more attention and consensus in recent years. Many states have adopted new policies to ensure children get effective literacy instruction that aligns with the science of reading. This includes an emphasis on phonics or learning the relationship between letters and sounds, vocabulary acquisition and building background knowledge to support comprehension.
It's time we take a similar approach toward math. Whether you call it the science of math or something else, there are proven, well-researched principles that underpin high-quality math instruction. These are backed by groups like the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics and aligned to state educational standards, but they aren't used consistently in classrooms.
For starters, kids need to learn math in a more connected way, in which concepts build on one another. This means encouraging students to see the links between topics, like connecting addition and multiplication in elementary school and ratio and rate to whole number multiplication and division in middle school.
Good math instruction also encourages the use of consistent strategies over time. A teacher might introduce a number bond, a diagram that shows part-whole relationships using circles and lines, to show young children how two small numbers are put together to make a larger number. Then, as students learn basic operations in first and second grades, the number bond can serve as a visual model students use to solve addition and subtraction problems.
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Students need to learn math concepts, not just memorization
Instruction also should foster deep conceptual understanding of mathematics, not just memorization. Students need to understand the reason the math works and why a math idea is important.
Teachers can use a variety of strategies to build conceptual understanding. One way to deepen understanding and provide a system for problem solving is to help students progress from concrete understanding to representational understanding to abstract understanding. A student learning division might need to use blocks to see that 24 blocks arranged into six groups has four blocks in each group. Remove the blocks, and the child may draw a diagram showing that 24 marks put into six groups yields four marks in each group. Eventually, the student knows 24 divided by 6 is 4 and can express it symbolically as 24 ÷ 6 = 4.
By emphasizing conceptual understanding, we don't mean to imply that traditional procedural skills aren't important as well. Math is built on a series of rules and procedures. Students still need to do these procedures quickly and efficiently and must be able to recall math facts.
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Drop outdated gimmicks for teaching math
But one thing we do need to do away with is relying on silly and unsupported math tricks to remember how to do procedures.
Remember that old butterfly method for adding fractions? It was a commonly taught gimmick involving drawing wings around numbers. Such tricks are easy to forget and lead to mix-ups when solving more complex problems.
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Finally, kids need to know how to apply what they learn in math class toward solving real-world problems, for example when averaging test scores to determine a grade, calculating a price with a 40% off sale, finding the minimum size of a box needed to mail an item, and more. Providing students with opportunities to discuss and engage in real-world applications of math makes their learning more meaningful.
We've both advocated for better reading instruction over the years and are thrilled to see schools nationwide taking critical steps in that area. We hope education leaders will pursue similar efforts to improve math instruction. The latest international test scores show how urgent the need for change is. Now, we need the collective will to make it happen.
Lynne Munson is the CEO and founder of Great Minds PBC, which developed the following math resources: EngageNY, Eureka Math and Eureka Math². Nell McAnelly is chair of the Great Minds PBC Board and co-director emeritus of the Gordon A. Cain Center for STEM Literacy at Louisiana State University. She served as the project director for EngageNY Math.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Why did math scores decline? How we teach kids doesn't add up