The unprecedented low math scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) highlight the urgent need to support students’ math learning to make up for the impact of the pandemic on math achievement. With math proficiency at an all-time low, educators are looking for strategies to help students get back on track. U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona issued an “urgent call to action” in response to the NAEP report.

While the dramatically low math scores are certainly cause for concern, they do not come as a surprise. The majority of U.S. students have struggled with math achievement for decades, and a disruption to their education brought on by the pandemic only exacerbated the issue.

The good news is that because mathematics has always been a challenging subject, we already know a lot about improving math achievement. Moreover, in the last two decades, mastery of math has grown increasingly important with the growth of well-paying jobs entering the economy in the science, technology, engineering, and math fields. As a result, experts have conducted significant research into and testing of approaches to teaching math more effectively.

WestEd continues to lead innovative instructional math research that yields important insights and supports for educators and policymakers. Along with other leading research and practice organizations, we have identified and tested solutions, which, applied carefully and with fidelity, have the potential to not only accelerate math learning in the wake of the pandemic but also support improved math achievement over the long run.

School districts currently have access to an unprecedented infusion of funds to address the impact of the pandemic on student learning. It is crucial that they invest the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) dollars from the American Rescue Plan in strategies that have the strongest evidence base.

There are a range of strategies that meet that criterion:

  • Schools and districts should invest in high-quality instructional materials that are based on what research shows about the best ways to teach math at various grade levels. How educators support students’ learning is crucial to addressing the problem.
  • School districts would also benefit from increasing the time spent on math study through high-quality tutoring by professional tutors and extended classroom time.
  • A freely available second-grade math intervention used as a supplement of 20 minutes twice a week improves math outcomes not only in second grade but later in third grade and in algebra.
  • Teachers are the single most important in-classroom factor affecting student learning. We must provide educators with timely and targeted professional development during this “all hands on deck” moment.

We strongly urge educators and education leaders to take this opportunity to identify, examine, and invest in long-term, sustainable solutions. We also encourage the education research community to study and document what we are learning as we implement and coordinate additional instructional supports for students and teachers.