When schools closed for in-person learning in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, it was math achievement scores that declined the most.
Why? Because unlike English Language Arts, which is more closely tied to the language environment at home, math is entirely dependent on the instruction students receive in schools. When kids got less instructional time, they learned less math.
So, to get those students back on track, school and district leaders need to invest in ways to expand the amount of instruction that students receive going forward. After monitoring state and district investments, here are some of the most promising ideas that we’ve seen:
According to the latest numbers from the NCES School Pulse Panel, 82% of districts offered summer school programs this year (down from 90% in 2022). There’s still too little evidence on the quality or outcomes of those programs, but they’ve been tremendously popular for families. For example, New York City’s “Summer Rising” program expanded to offer 110,000 seats—making it by far the largest summer program in the country—and still the demand outstripped the supply of available spots.
A few places have measured the results of their programs. In Dallas, for instance, a unique public-private partnership combined forces to provide 1,300 different summer programs for over 47,000 students. An independent evaluation found that the “dosage” of the programming mattered, and for every 10 days elementary students spent in summer school, they became 25% more likely to pass the state math exam.
Similarly, in Indianapolis, a nonprofit called The Mind Trust teamed up with the local United Way chapter to offer Indy Summer Learning Labs. The program served 5,000 students for five weeks of programming at 39 cites across the city, and participating students saw big gains in reading and math.
When facing staffing shortages, districts may want to consider how technology can provide students with more high-quality instructional time.
One promising endeavor is the spread of states making the Zearn math platform freely available to students and teachers. For example, the Nebraska Department of Education was able to reach elementary and middle school students in nearly 500 schools across the state. Nebraska students who consistently used the program had 2.5 times the growth in their state assessment scores than students who did not use it regularly. It also resulted in double-digit increases for Black and Latino students, students eligible for free/reduced lunch, and English learners. Regular Zearn users saw similar gains in Louisiana, and Colorado and Ohio are now offering the program to students in their states.
Another technology example comes from Texas. The Texas Education Agency (TEA) partnered with Carnegie Learning to provide educators and students the Texas Math Solution. It focuses on high-quality (digital) instructional materials combined with interactive software that gives students practice on standards-aligned content. After it adopted the program, the Muleshoe Independent School District near Lubbock, TX saw double-digit increases in the student proficiency rates.
The academic research on tutoring is impressive. If high-dosage, high-quality tutoring could be implemented at scale, it would be enough to get kids back on track.
The NCES School Pulse Panel data shows that more than a third of districts offered high-dosage tutoring last year, but publicly available data on the impact of tutoring investments is surprisingly thin. As one positive example, the New Jersey Tutoring Corps provided 500 low-performing students with 1-hour, small-group sessions 2-3 times per week. By the end of the year, the percentage of participants performing at grade level jumped from 16 to 40% in math.
Improving General Instruction and Reaching More Kids
It’s theoretically possible to improve the quality of instruction and help kids learn more math in the same or less time. That can be harder to do than simply changing the time variable, but a recent evaluation of a statewide program in Kentucky program found that targeted interventions for students plus collaboration among teachers yielded significant gains in K-3 math and other non-test outcomes including student attendance.
And yet, all of this is far from enough. According to the latest data from NWEA, the average student is 4.5 months behind where they should be in math. Those reflect averages, and disadvantaged students in the middle grades are particularly far behind.
Worse, the examples highlighted above simply aren’t providing enough students with enough additional learning time. For example, a recent study on summer programs in 9 districts found that the programs boosted math achievement at about the expected rate given the amount of instructional time participating students received, but the programs served too few participants and provided too little instructional time to meaningfully move the needle on the total learning loss students in those districts suffered.
Meanwhile, all of these programs are at risk in the coming years as one-time federal supports wind down.
The bottom line: It is possible for states and districts to boost math outcomes in demonstrable ways. The strategies outlined above are all good places to start. However, education leaders will need to be much more aggressive about monitoring the reach and impact of those investments if they’re going to truly get students back on track.