No progress on the math front. That's one way to interpret the 4th-graders' scores that were released today by the Institute of Education Sciences in the Nation's Report Card. For the first time since 1990, their average score in math on the National Assessment of Educational Progress didn't budge.
But good progress has been made over the past two decades. That's the other take on today's announcement. Since 1990, 4th graders have shown steady improvement in math. And the scores for 8th graders continued to go up this year. This graph on the first page of the report tells the story well:
Both readings are right, which begs two questions: What caused the upward trend of the last two decades, and have we hit a ceiling? Is there something about the way we approach mathematics instruction with young children that can only take them so far?
Several reports over the years have strenuously called for educators to pay more attention to math. Earlier this year, National Research Council released an extensive report which argues that children need more math instruction in early childhood than they are getting now.
In 2008, the National Mathematics Advisory Panel put out a 120-page report that included four helpful recommendations related to math teaching in the pre-K through 3rd grade years. To recap: Focus the curriculum on addition, subtraction, multiplication and division; make sure children arrive in kindergarten with a basic understanding of numbers and counting; ramp up the use of math specialists who can ensure that there are strong curricular bridges between grade levels; and provide training to pre-K-3rd teachers so they can recognize when children are, or aren't, understanding some basic priniciples of mathematics. As we've noted before, too many early educators are unaware of young children’s cognitive capacity to understand math concepts.
All of this will require improvement in the math skills and knowledge of early education teachers. The current system is producing school teachers who do not have a strong background in math themselves and may even be "afraid" to teach math to pre-K students, according to a 2008 policy brief from the Society for Research in Child Development.
In short, if we want to improve students' proficiency in math, we have to improve teachers' proficiency too. That may be the best way to start bending that score curve upward again.