Getting High-Quality Math Curriculum to the Students Who Need It Most

Livingston: Study of 934 districts finds the market is becoming stronger. But states and schools must still seek out the best educational materials.

This is a photo of math symbols embedded over a person typing on a laptop.

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Students must learn math. “Future of work” studies consistently underscore this point, as analytical thinking and other math-rooted cognitive skills have become core to success in today’s economy. Students must learn math, and it’s incumbent upon the schools to teach it to them. It’s especially critical for the young people who are most impacted by poverty and structural racism in this country — Black and Latino students, and multilingual learners — to get a strong math education that equips them with skills they need to make a good life.

Excellent math curriculum is one of the best tools available to help schools meet this challenge. High-quality, grade-level materials based on research-based best practices for teaching and learning math can significantly improve teacher practice and student outcomes. High-quality math curriculum is a no-brainer: Every school district should adopt it, and every student across the country should have access to it.

But this is far from the case. Observational studies of American classrooms reveal the scarcity of good math learning materials, especially in schools with high concentrations of historically underserved students. Perhaps even more alarming is the pervasive lack of information and transparency. Straightforward questions like, for instance, what proportion of students and teachers have access to high-quality math curriculum are remarkably difficult to answer. Centralized databases of curriculum information simply do not exist at the state, let alone national, level.

I believed change was possible. So, along with my co-founders, we established the Center for Education Market Dynamics. We are building such a database ourselves, making use of various public information sources about district curriculum selection. We focus our research on a critical subset of 934 U.S. school districts we call the “Impact Core,” which intentionally oversamples large districts and, by extension, Black and Latino students, multilingual learners and children eligible for free and reduced-price school lunch. Our first national report, on quality in the K-8 math curriculum market, found that about 36% of these districts had selected exclusively high-quality math curriculum for elementary school, and about 22% for middle school. This means roughly 7.6 million K-8 students live in districts where the math curriculum is not high-quality, not rated or not known publicly. 

These numbers might sound grim, and they are: They suggest that many students in our Impact Core lack access to high-quality math curriculum. But our second report, on math products and publishers, contains harbingers of change and progress. We found, for example, that the dominance of the biggest math publishers and products has been seriously challenged in recent years, as innovative, high-quality and affordable products are rapidly becoming significant players in the market.

For instance, relative newcomer Great Minds, which publishes Eureka Math — a curriculum that gets high marks from EdReports — has grown rapidly over the past few years to become the third most prevalent elementary math curriculum publisher in the Impact Core districts. Our research found that Eureka Math is also the most selected high-quality math curriculum at the elementary school level in these districts. Concurrent with the rise of such new, high-quality curricula, many widely used, low-quality products are falling by the wayside or being replaced. 

In other words, the national math market is in a transitional state, gravitating toward higher-quality curriculum overall. The shift is nascent but gathering steam. As states and districts move into their next K-8 math curriculum adoptions, they’ll have a much stronger field of choices; in five to 10 years, we expect to see that higher numbers of our Impact Core districts have adopted high-quality math materials. 

But progress in the market is hardly an end in itself. The end is impact on math learning, especially for students hit hardest by the turmoil of the past few years. So state and district education leaders, as well as curriculum and professional learning providers, must also drive greater awareness and understanding of the role, importance and implementation demands of high-quality curriculum, to make sure the best of what the market has to offer reaches the students who need it most.

These students need to learn math — and there are great tools out there for making sure they do.

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