March MATHness Championship!

Millions of college sports fans have filled out their NCAA March Madness brackets. They’ve calculated their favorite team’s chance of claiming the championship. They’ve weighed statistics and track records to determine no-brainers and upsets. And many have celebrated or lamented as they’ve been met with early wins or losses that either validated or busted their data-informed brackets.

In short, America is doing a lot of math — at a time when math achievement is experiencing historic challenges.

Enter the March Mathness tournament, an NCAA-style competition hosted by the Collaborative for Student Success to spotlight state and district initiatives that are helping kids catch up and accelerating learning in math.

With the goal of bringing attention to innovative efforts transforming how math education is delivered in schools, we’ve convened a plucky panel of three expert judges, each with their own critical lens on K-12 education policy.

Chad Aldeman writes for EduProgress and The 74 and formed his March Mathness bracket by evaluating each program for strong implementation, scalability and evidence. Jocelyn Pickford, writing for CurriculumHQ, weighs the contenders with eyes focused on the use of high-quality instructional materials and meaningful teacher and family engagement. AssessmentHQ’s Dale Chu rounds out the judges’ table with a focus on responsible use of data and strong student outcomes.

The tournament began with a Sweet Sixteen lineup representing a diverse range of approaches to improving math achievement. From statewide comprehensive reforms in states like Alabama, Kentucky, Arkansas and Colorado to the widespread use of innovative learning platforms like Zearn and the AI-powered Khanmigo, the tournament narrowed to an Elite Eight. Three state bills and the use of Zearn across four states advanced alongside novel tutoring approaches from Texas and New Jersey, a policy of automatic enrollment in advanced math courses out of North Carolina and Texas, and a statewide math fund in Kentucky focused on professional learning and coaching.

The competition heated up in the Final Four. Alabama’s Numeracy Act — a comprehensive set of reforms that provide elementary math tutors, set up a process for vetting and approving evidence based, educator-reviewed math curriculum, and transform teacher training and preparation — challenged the statewide use of Zearn in Nebraska, Louisiana, Colorado and Ohio. Zearn proved its worth throughout the bumpy road of pandemic-era schooling, when multiple states provided free, universal access to its digital learning platform to supplement instruction and enable kids to access evidence-based instruction both in school and remotely.

Despite impressive evidence that shows gains on state math assessments for students who use Zearn consistently, the multi-faceted approach of Alabama’s Numeracy Act, and its standing as a nationwide exemplar of proactive math legislation, fueled its advance to the finals.

The second matchup of the Final Four saw Kentucky’s Math Achievement Fund go toe-to-toe with a novel automatic enrollment policy out of North Carolina and Texas. Kentucky’s Fund is one of the longest-standing initiatives in the competition, dating from 2005. It provides grants to schools and districts for math coaches, high-quality materials and extra professional development. With nearly 20 years of outcomes data, the fund has strong evidence of having moved the needle for Kentucky students in grades K-3.

Meanwhile, North Carolina and Texas have been garnering nationwide attention for new statewide policies meant to increase enrollment in advanced math courses. Students who score at the highest levels on the state math test are automatically enrolled in advanced classes for their next school year, turning on its head the long-held practice of having them opt in. Now, high-achievers must opt out, a move many advocates describe as game-changing.

Begun in Dallas Independent School District before being taken statewide in Texas, the policy saw a doubling in the percentage of students of color enrolled in advanced math. In North Carolina, the new process has resulted in a steadily increasing number of high-achieving students enrolling in advanced courses — and sticking with them — as they work toward additional college and career opportunities. While Kentucky’s Math Achievement has been moving the needle for two decades, automatic enrollment policies are making a big wave — enough to cinch the W in this round.

As for the championship match, the battle for the March Mathness title could not have been fiercer.

The judges fought passionately to decide between the heavyweight Alabama Numeracy Act and the newcomer automatic enrollment policies in Texas and North Carolina.

Pickford was a stalwart defender of Alabama, applauding the Numeracy Act as a national standout for state leadership in promoting instruction rooted in evidence-based curriculum and wraparound supports for students, families and teachers. “Any state effort to advance learning should be rooted in access to and use of materials that are aligned to a state’s academic standards, have been endorsed by educators and empower teachers to reach all students. As leaders consider the March Mathness practices for their states or districts, I urge them to place evidence-based instruction and educator and family engagement at the center.”

Chu and Aldeman, while agreeing with Pickford about the merits of Alabama’s legislation, underscored the ripple effects of a move like Texas and North Carolina’s new process. “Automatic enrollment policies in advanced math courses represent a sea change in the way we think about math opportunities for students. After decades of requiring students to opt themselves into higher-level courses, widespread adoption of this kind of policy would represent a raising of expectations for students, rather than treating advanced math as a ‘nice-to-have’ for only some kids,” the pair said.

Ultimately, the judges decided, the relative simplicity of automatic enrollment — and the ease with which other states could adopt this for their K-12 systems — catapulted Texas and North Carolina to a winning slam-dunk.

Though automatic enrollment ultimately took home the championship, the full March Mathness bracket showcased a wealth of strategies that states and districts are employing to advance math education. From digital platforms and summer learning to professional development and comprehensive legislative reforms, the variety of initiatives reflects a nationwide commitment to improving math outcomes for all students.

The success of the March Mathness tournament lies not just in crowning a champion, but in highlighting the innovative and varied efforts underway to tackle the challenges in math education in the United States.

Looking ahead, the Collaborative for Student Success will continue to shine a light on the most promising efforts to advance math learning, and will urge states and districts to learn from the past four years of academic recovery as they weather challenges posed by the expiration of federal relief dollars, record chronic absenteeism and the continuously changing needs of students and families.

We hope you enjoyed March Mathness — but the math fun doesn’t end there. Stay connected with our math efforts and learn more about how you can help advance a renewed focus on math education on our EduProgress platform. We’ll see you next year for the Big (Math) Dance!

Here are descriptions for the full suite of contenders:

AI-powered Khanmigo — The Khan Academy team has created a new AI-powered tool in hopes of providing personalized tutoring for students at a relatively low cost, while enabling teachers to quickly create customized lesson plans or rubrics. Early reviews suggest the tool, called Khanmigo, could be a helpful instructional aid, but others have noted that it has a tendency to make basic mathematical errors

Alabama Numeracy Act — Comprehensive statewide legislation that ensures every elementary school has a math coach; and sets up a process to vet and approve high-quality instructional materials and curricula; creates a task force to help ensure teacher preparation programs are effective for new elementary math educators; establishes academies to help build a pipeline of principals trained in effective math intervention strategies.

Alabama’s Summer Adventures in Learning (SAIL) —Focuses on overcoming summer learning loss by bringing together youth and community groups, faith-based organizations, philanthropy, municipal agencies and schools to pool their knowledge and resources to create summer enrichment programs. In 2023, participating students gained an average of three months in math, marking the 11th straight summer the program has led to academic improvement.

Arkansas LEARNS Act — Signed into law last year, the measure requires that schools develop math intervention plans for third- through eighth-graders not performing at grade level. By the 2024-25 school year, each district must report the type of interventions they’re using and the number of students receiving them.

Automatic enrollment in advanced math courses (Texas and North Carolina) — The use of data to enroll low-income and students of color in advanced math classes — eliminating the need for parents and caregivers to opt their students into those classes — has helped to double the number of Black and brown students in accelerated math courses in Texas alone. In North Carolina, the policy runs from elementary through high school, ensuring access in those critical early and middle grades. Enrollment in advance math has increased by tens of thousands of students and math scores are trending up overall. Prior to the policy, ~13% of eligible students were not enrolled in advance math in 8th grade. That gap has been cut dramatically to just 2%, and the pool of eligible students has also increased.

Colorado HB 23-1231, Improving Mathematics Outcomes in K-12 — Comprehensive statewide legislation that combines free training in evidence-informed practices for elementary school and secondary school mathematics educators, with a focus on the promotion and use of high-quality curricula and assessment. 

Delaware Math Coalition — An alliance of leaders from public school districts, charter schools, colleges, the state Department of Education and the business sector have developed seven programs with the goal of delivering high-quality professional learning opportunities and experiences that advance effective math instruction.

Kentucky HB 162 — While not yet signed into law, this bill is noteworthy for targeting grades 4 to 8, rather than the early grades. The measure calls for increased access to “evidence-based high-quality instructional resources,” mandatory improvement plans for struggling students and universal math screening.

Kentucky’s Math Achievement Fund — Created back in 2005, this effort provides grants for math coaches, the purchase of high-quality materials and extra time for teachers to engage in professional learning of the new mathematics materials purchased. The Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education research that the program’s combination of targeted interventions, peer coaching and educator collaboration improved math achievement in grades K-3. Gains were also seen in other areas, like increased student attendance and decreased disciplinary incidents, and were evident across racial and ethnic groups.

Massachusetts Math Acceleration Academies — These are designed to offer added time on task in small-class settings, with four-plus hours of in-person math instruction for one week per student, during vacation weeks throughout the school year. The academies are required to use multiple forms of assessment to monitor student progress and enable teachers to tailor lessons to meet the needs of the students they are serving.

New Jersey Tutoring & Coaching Supports/Rekindle Education — The New Jersey Tutoring Corps serves students statewide in pre-K through eighth grade during school, after school and over the summer. Following seven to 15 weeks of high-impact tutoring, the program saw a 24 percentage point increase in the number of students performing at or above grade level — and 90% of students emerge from the program say they feel like they could help their friends with math. Complementing the statewide effort is a small pilot program offering math teachers one-on-one and small group coaching on core instructional strategies. 

Performance-based tutoring contracts (Ector County, Texas, et al.) — An innovative approach that uses a “pay for success” model whereby tutoring companies earn more money if students make progress on the district’s interim assessments (MAP tests). This approach encourages providers to become more engaged and to follow up with students if they missed tutoring sessions, all while shifting the burden away from already overworked teachers. 

Play-in Round: California’s Math Framework VS. Louisiana’s “Back to Basics in Math” — In perhaps the most talked-about policy change in math last year, the state of California approved a new learning framework for all public schools. The new framework, in the works for four years, is designed to connect learning to real-world uses of math and data, while helping to ensure that students see themselves in the curriculum and in math-related careers by making instruction more culturally relevant. Louisiana’s 2023 law requires math teachers in grades 4 to 8 to take additional professional development related to numeracy. School districts must report annually on the number who have successfully done so.

Statewide adoption of Zearn (Nebraska, Louisiana, Colorado, Ohio) — These states now offer this high-quality math supplemental resource free to all public school students. Studies show that consistent use of Zearn results in larger student gains on state assessments, including significant proficiency gains for the lowest-performing math students, English learners, Black and Latino students, and those eligible for free and reduced-price lunch.

Texas Math Solution — This interactive tool gives educators real-time data insights about student performance, and its middle school math program is rated all green on EdReports. Muleshoe Independent School District saw a 333% improvement on the state’s annual math assessment after switching to this curriculum. 

West Virginia’s Third Grade Success Act — Establishes an approved list of screeners and math benchmark assessments for K-3 students that must be given in the first 30 days of the school year, midyear and at the end of the year. This is a strong approach to thoughtful use of data to target supports and interventions based on student need and to develop individualized improvement plans for those not meeting benchmarks.

About the Author

Chad Aldeman is a nationally recognized expert on education policy, including school finance; teacher preparation, evaluation, and compensation; and state standards, assessment, and accountability. Keep up with Chad on the EduProgess: Unpacked blog.

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