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Opinion: PISA exam tests real-world math skills. But that’s not what U.S. schools teach

Bob Hughes | December 18, 2023

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The results of the 2022 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) are out, and the United States ranked 28th out of 37 participating Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development countries in 15-year-olds’ math reasoning skills. Across the globe, math performance declined significantly.

Unfortunately, these low scores mask a more troubling fact: Our country’s math performance has been mediocre for 40 years — a failure to mathematically thrive across much of the U.S. The nation will, if the past is a predicate for the future, continue to lag behind the rest of the world in the understanding and application of math, skills that are critical for citizens and employees.

But none of this is inevitable. Consider one aspect of the recent PISA exam, which illustrates why tangible math learning is so crucial. In contrast to other tests, PISA assesses math in the context of real-world problems and situations. Students must demonstrate an ability to use mathematical reasoning to make purchasing decisions, plan routes around a city and interpret data about smartphone use. Math is grounded in practical applications, and the test itself underscores why math matters to most students and adults. These are skills that parents want schools to focus on, but PISA suggests they are not.

The stakes are exceptionally high. As education leaders, if we turn away from these results, we become complicit in casting away a generation of children who lack the math foundation necessary to function in and contribute to society. All students can learn math; now is the time for policymakers, district leaders and curriculum developers to work together to make math more relevant, engaging and rigorous for all U.S. students.

At the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, we’re investing over $1 billion working with our partners over the next 10 years to transform K-12 math classrooms. One of the key areas we’re focusing on is improving instructional materials. We believe that there are tools at our disposal — right now! — to reverse the disheartening trend made so clear in the PISA results.

Strong, research-based curriculum, for example, is one of the most important tools an educator has at her disposal. But it too often is of low quality and fails to ask students to apply math to complex, real-world problems, as PISA does. In places like California and Texas, which each will undergo a statewide process within the next two years to determine which curriculum schools can select, only 33% and 19% of teachers, respectively, report using high-quality curricula once a week. Nationally, according to the Center for Education Market Dynamics, a foundation partner, only 36% of sampled districts selected exclusively high-quality math curriculum for elementary school, and about 22% for middle school. As they said in an op-ed in The 74, “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.” States and districts can adopt better curricula and aligned supplemental materials.

Math can be more relevant and motivating. A whopping 45% of teachers responding to a RAND survey this year indicated that their students fail to create any real-world math assignments or projects that are valued by people outside their classroom. Math for math’s sake is important and indeed beautiful. But, at the same time, materials can and should encourage students to use math in real-world situations, such as designing a budget, planning a trip and exploring issues like income inequality. Materials should help students see that math is critical for their future employment, citizenship and broader life in a global ecosystem.

Fixing this is within our control.

In fact, it is already happening. One of our longtime partners, Illustrative Mathematics, provides openly licensed K-12 core curriculum and aligned professional learning that engages students with real-world problems to help them learn math. Every lesson incorporates instructional routines in which students learn concepts and procedures by sharing their thinking. For example, Math Talks build fluency by encouraging students to rely on what they know about structure, patterns and other math concepts and talk out their reasoning as they solve practical problems — whether that’s identifying the nutritional value of foods or computing how many tiles are needed to cover a bathroom floor. This and other high-quality curriculum should be the norm across the country. 

Much has been made of the possibilities of artificial intelligence for students, but it has real power to help math teachers. Teaching Lab, a leading provider of educator coaching, created IMScaffold, an AI-powered tool that math teachers can use to create grade-level prompts and tasks unique to a student’s needs. For example, if a student requires a refresher lesson on adding fractions, the teacher can ask IMScaffold to design a 15-minute lesson that is aligned with, and maintains the rigor of, the Illustrative Mathematics curriculum. It appears instantly for the teacher to use in real time. In this way, AI can provide teachers insight into the right next step, tailoring the student experience and saving the educator time. 

All students can and must learn math. But stagnant and declining outcomes on PISA and other assessments emphasize the need for urgency and action from education leaders to transform the math classroom to one where students are motivated and engaged and teachers are supported. Without this transformation, their future success and the nation’s economy is in real jeopardy. Everyone has a role to play. Let’s get to work. 

Correction: The United States ranked 28th out of 37 participating Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development countries in 15-year-olds’ math reasoning skills.

Disclosure: The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation provides financial support to LA School Report’s parent company,  The 74.

Bob Hughes is K-12 director for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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