The State of School Mathematics in the United States

One area in which the research evidence is consistent and compelling concerns weaknesses in the mathematical performance of U.S. students. State, national, and international assessments conducted over the past 30 years indicate that, although U.S. students may not fare badly when asked to perform straightforward computational procedures, they tend to have a limited understanding of basic mathematical concepts. They are also notably deficient in their ability to apply mathematical skills to solve even simple problems. Although performance in mathematics is generally low, there are signs from national assessments that it has been improving over the past decade. In a number of schools and states, students’ mathematical performance is among the best in the world. The evidence suggests, however, that many students are still not being given the educational opportunities they need to achieve at high levels.

Most students in grades pre-K to 8 encounter a rather shallow curriculum.

In comparison with the curricula of countries achieving well on international comparisons, the U.S. elementary and middle school mathematics curriculum has been characterized as shallow, undemanding, and diffuse in content coverage. U.S. mathematics textbooks cover more topics, but more superficially, than their counterparts in other countries do. Despite efforts over the last half-century to set higher learning goals for U.S. school mathematics and to provide new instructional materials and better assessments, most students in grades pre-K to 8 encounter a rather shallow curriculum. The instruction they are given continues to emphasize the execution of paper-and-pencil skills in arithmetic through demonstrations of procedures followed by repeated practice.

To ensure that students are meeting standards, states and districts have, during the past decade or so, mandated a variety of assessments in mathematics, many with serious consequences for students, teachers, and schools. Although intended to ensure that all students have an opportunity to learn mathematics, some of these assessments are not well aligned with the curriculum. Those that were originally designed to rank order students, schools, and districts seldom provide information that can be used to improve instruction.

The preparation of U.S. preschool to middle school teachers often falls far short of equipping them with the knowledge they need for helping students develop mathematical proficiency. Many students in grades pre-K to 8 continue to be taught by teachers who may not have appropriate certification at that grade and who have at best a shaky grasp of mathematics.

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