Gains in Student Proficiency Indicate Changes to Math Instruction Are Working

Common Core State Standards emphasize a different approach to math instruction – one that prioritizes conceptual understanding and fluency. That’s an important shift, Keith Devlin, cofounder of BrainQuake, writes on the Huffington Post, because “the kind of mathematical ability required for a productive life is very different from the skill set that has served society for many hundreds of years.”

However, Devlin argues that the eight fundamental principles of 21st century mathematics have not been translated into classroom curricula, “at least not uniformly.” Devlin adds that “some of the initial attempts to develop assessments were a disaster.”

We disagree. Certainly, changes to math instruction have not been seamless – nor would one expect them to be. In addition to traditional methods, like memorization and recitation, children today are encouraged to explore multiple problem-solving approaches, which help build understanding and fluency with numbers and functions.

Some of these approaches are wholly new to parents who grew up under older models of education. They require teachers to make adjustments to how and what they teach. Those are not simple, and they don’t happen overnight. But, as Devlin points out, they are necessary to prepare students to succeed in a world where “devices in our pockets can carry out any computation and solve any problem.”

Already, however, higher standards are helping to improve student performance. This year a majority of states experienced notable gains in both math and English language arts proficiency.

“While there are numerous factors that affect student scores, and it is still too early to make definitive declarations, the 2016 assessments suggest that the promise of higher academic standards – whatever they may be called – is working,” Jim Cowen explains.

Importantly, some of the biggest improvements were made by third grade students, who have spent most of their educational careers learning to higher standards.

Adam Ezring notes, “Despite all the concerns of ‘fuzzy math,’ more 3rd graders this year were proficient than the year before, and the year before that…Math experts agree that this approach is key to getting kids more comfortable with math, so as they grow up, they are ready to tackle more difficult concepts.”

Those early-grade gains have been confused in reporting. A Syracuse Post-Standard article suggests, “Older students are especially disadvantaged by the changes occurring in New York state because they don’t have the foundation from earlier grades to build on.”

However, as states continue to implement higher standards and approaches designed to build math comprehension, it’s likely students at every grade level will start to make similar improvements. The evidence should reinforce that policymakers are on a right track, not encourage them to turn back.

Devlin agrees on that, as well. “As a mathematician who has consulted extensively for industry and various government agencies, I completely agree the above principles are what any nation should aim for if it wants to remain a world leader,” he writes.

To be sure, states should continue to ramp up supports for educators, to ensure they have the training and resources they need to effectively teach to higher standards.

As three Arizona Teachers of the Year write, the greater emphasis on conceptual understanding marks “a huge departure from the old ‘mile-wide, inch-deep’ way of teaching.” Such a big shift requires teachers to make adjustments, and “those kinds of changes are only effectively achieved through proper support and training.”

States are on the right track, and by sticking to their commitment to raise classroom expectations and provide professional development support to educators, it’s likely that they will continue to see improvements in student outcomes. As Ezring notes, we believe the country is on track to make “I’m not a math person” a saying of the past.