The Nation’s Report Card makes one thing painfully clear: American kids are failing in math, and the education system has been failing them for decades.

New research from the National Center for Education Statistics, which conducted a nationwide assessment of 15,000 9-year-old students in reading and math, found that average math scores fell 7 points since 2020 – the first-ever decline since the 1970s.

More serious still, the drop was even more profound for the lowest-performing students.

The pandemic is to blame for this latest slide, but kids were already in a deep hole before COVID-19 struck. Only 24% of 12th graders are at or above proficiency in math, according to the latest data.

And one-third of American adults report feeling uncomfortable with fourth grade math concepts, such as fractions and percentages, and two-step problems with whole numbers.

In other words, many adults barely have the math skills of a 9-year-old.

Why is math literacy critical?

How can we halt and reverse this nationwide slide?

It will take a collective effort from parents, educators, school boards and voters to pressure the system and foster a cultural mind shift. The conversation around skills gaps often focuses on literacy, with numeracy a distant second. We need to insist that math is just as important as reading, and make it an equal priority in our kids’ education.

Here’s why it’s critical: The real-world repercussions of the math shortfall go beyond our inability to figure out whether a warranty is a rip-off (almost all are) or whether the Netflix annual subscription is a good deal. What’s at stake is the loss of our safety, security and quality of life.

Everything from syringes to elevator sensors and air traffic control systems rely on someone using math correctly. Fifteen years from now, today’s students will be the ones adjusting planes’ wing flaps and giving shots.

At the moment, that’s hardly an attractive prospect.

Our old-school methods of instruction are partly to blame. We batch-process students, pushing them into the next chapter together, whether they are ready or not. We can also point to the teacher shortage, as low pay and tough conditions fail to attract and retain strong candidates.

Our challenges are compounded by confusing curricula from big-name publishers who often have no research proving repeated effectiveness.

How do we fix math scores?

Untangling this crisis starts outside the classroom. We need to rethink our outdated and sterilized curricula. Any parent will tell you that kids won’t learn if they don’t want to. Going beyond worksheets and homework can make math resonate and feel relevant.

We need to be better about spotting and fixing “faked proficiency.” Kids learn skills in silos and often memorize steps instead of internalizing what they’re learning. Rote memorization of actions like “carrying the 1” and doing long division demonstrates that students are learning dance steps while losing sight of the whole performance.

It’s also time to hold our local school boards accountable. Find out when elections are held, then look for candidates who are asking hard questions about whether the current math curriculum gets the job done. We also need candidates who support assessments so we can effectively measure our children’s gaps and fix them.

Be a math parent

Parents, in partnership with school and teachers, need to play a critical role. For some, this could mean confronting their own math hesitance and diving in alongside their kids. Parents often complain that the newer methods of teaching math are unrecognizable (“It’s not how I did it!”). Meanwhile, their kids protest that their parents are “doing it wrong.”

But math is a journey to the right answer, often by different routes. It’s not necessary to be a math whiz to be a math parent.

No matter how dire the math crisis in our country, we can turn it around. Making math a priority in our kids’ education will not only develop skills they need to succeed but also prepare them for real life. That’s exactly what we need to keep our country – and our elevators and airplanes – on an upward trajectory.

Laura Overdeck is the founder and president of Bedtime Math Foundation.

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Laura Overdeck

Guest columnist
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