The Math struggle is real. Starting in third grade, I became convinced that I was just no good at math. As an educator, I saw hundreds of students who had the same belief I did, and that belief proved severely limiting for them in their academic development. Nationally, the trendlines show that middle school math predicts high school graduation and high school math predicts college completion and career attainment (1). Simply put, there’s a lot riding on math skill development. Popular culture makes “not good at math” part of the accepted status quo — in movies, shows, and social posts it’s easy to find the confession “I’m just not a math person.”
There is a growing body of action research showing that this belief can be reversed. As it turns out, math scores are correlated to what you believe about your ability. The research shows that some people are predisposed to math but success is much more dependent upon someone’s beliefs about their abilities. Psychologists have found that student belief about themselves falls into two major categories: a) “I have a fixed amount of intelligence, and I can’t do much to change it;” or b) “I can always change how intelligent I am with hard work.” In one study, psychologists successfully convinced a group of low-income students of color that hard work and practice leads to greater levels of intelligence. This group, in turn, went on to achieve higher grades and greater success than they did previously.
Our targets: Math skills and math self-belief. UPD is leading an innovative three-way partnership with the School District of Palm Beach County (SDPBC) and Savvas Learning, thanks to generous philanthropic support. The purpose of the partnership is to replace typical new curriculum rollouts with dynamic partnerships between innovative districts (SDPBC), high-quality curriculum providers (Savvas), and experts in professional learning (UPD). Together we are committed to developing and deploying a Professional Learning System for early-career middle school math teachers with two targets. We aim to raise middle school math outcomes through professional learning and high-quality instructional materials and empower students to believe in themselves as mathematicians—reversing the “I’m not good at math” mentality. In support of this, we have designed a clear theory of action outlining high-leverage strategies and detailed measures connecting what teachers learn to student outcomes and student beliefs.
Due to COVID, year-to-year student progress will hit an unprecedented low, especially in math. COVID closures are delivering unparalleled losses in academic achievement for a generation of incoming students, and research is showing that this is the most pronounced in math, particularly for students of color. We can anticipate that students are starting the school year with 70 percent of the typical year-to-year learning gains overall and only 50 percent in math.
This past spring, SDPBC led a colossal and inspirational effort to quickly shift from in-person to high quality synchronous and asynchronous distance learning for over 190,000 students. This upcoming fall, as a partnership, we have shifted all plans for in-person professional learning to online with one new feature in our theory of action—developing teachers’ skills to change what students believe about their own math abilities.
Demand is high and capacity is low. There are unprecedented demands on our school systems right now to do everything all at once: accelerate learning, create online school, switch nimbly back to in-person class with distancing, provide devices, and the list of urgent challenges without easy answers goes on. Like our work with SDPBC, UPD has been privileged to partner with a variety of districts to help see the forest for the trees in the work of data-driven priority setting, rapid planning, providing added capacity to implement professional learning and measurement routines with fidelity.
Do you believe you are “no good at math?” Chances are that if you do, you’re probably right. The good news is that you can change that belief and alter the results. A similar question for all of us is, “Do we believe we are up to addressing the math learning challenges exacerbated by the COVID crisis?” Again, if we believe we are, we are probably right!
(1) Lee, J. (2012). College for all: Gaps between desirable and actual P–12 math achievement trajectories for college readiness. Educational Researcher, 41(2), 43-55.