Math Teachers’ Efforts Can Really Add Up

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Mar 19, 2024

Photo illustration featuring math teacher Candace Jackson and classroom imagery., photos by Alfexe, Skynesher, and Ridofranz/Getty Images and Candace Jackson, design by Haley Okuley/RAND.

Photos by Alfexe, Skynesher, and Ridofranz/Getty Images and Candace Jackson. Design by Haley Okuley/RAND.

Math education can lay the groundwork for problem-solving skills, analytical thinking, and even a rewarding career. But not all classroom experiences are created equal. New research shows that teachers have incredible influence in leveling the playing field—and in helping students achieve their potential.

Candace Jackson teaches math. But to say she is simply a math teacher would be reductive.

Jackson is a vital resource to her middle school in Humble, Texas. She mentors students and teachers to ensure that everyone is equipped with the right lessons and skills to help every child succeed.

She’s an occasional athletics coach and even an occasional mother figure to her students: “They consider it a term of endearment, to call me ‘mama,’” she says with a laugh.

And before all that, Jackson was a mechanical engineer. Students sometimes ask why she left the more lucrative engineering field for the classroom. “I do this because I love you,” she tells them, “so I can help you be whatever it is you want to be.”

Jackson says that, as an African American woman, she also wanted to debunk the myth that math is inaccessible. “I wanted to open opportunities for people who look like me—whether they want to be a lawyer, a doctor, a veterinarian, or an engineer. Anyone can understand the basic principles of mathematics.”

Teachers can be a huge part of determining whether a student simply survives their math education or thrives in STEM.

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She says that math, at its core, is about critical thinking. “Critical thinking and problem-solving are the skills we need to make this world better,” Jackson adds. “Every student should have access to those skills.”

Researchers at RAND agree. In 2022, they launched the American Mathematics Educator Study (AMES), a five-year study to investigate students’ math opportunities and what schools and teachers can do to make those opportunities more accessible—from elementary school all the way through college and career preparation in high school.

The researchers’ findings so far indicate that teachers can be a huge part of determining whether a student simply survives their math education or thrives in STEM.

“The role of a math teacher is more significant than even they may fully realize,” says Julia Kaufman, coleader of the study and a senior policy researcher at RAND. “A student’s entire trajectory could change as the result of a teacher’s recommendation to place that student in a more advanced math course. It can change when a teacher tells a child that they have what it takes to do well in math. That’s incredibly powerful.”

Acing the Equity Test

Uneven access to high-quality mathematics education has been a persistent challenge for American public schools.

Students of all ages are often grouped based on their academic performance—or their perceived academic performance. This practice, sometimes known as tracking, can start as early as elementary school. It disproportionately affects Black, Hispanic, and low-income students, who are often placed in lower-level groups or tracks.

Just how commonplace is tracking? In a recent RAND survey, more than 40 percent of elementary school principals reported that students were grouped by achievement level for math instruction.

Tracking students into math courses becomes more common in middle school and is most common in high school. In fact, 68 percent of middle school principals reported grouping students by achievement level; 39 percent reported that students are tracked into different classes. By high school, more than half of schools group students this way.

“Students in lower-track courses typically receive less grade-level content, fewer chances to share or explain their thinking in class, and more teacher lecturing,” says RAND policy researcher Elizabeth Steiner, who coleads the study.

This creates a ripple effect. For example, imagine an eighth grader, Andrea, who has access to algebra because she’s on a higher track. Andrea’s friend Clay is on a lower track, so he takes general math instead. As they enter high school, it’s highly unlikely that these two will ever share a math classroom. Clay will find it nearly impossible to take the same advanced courses as Andrea.

Access to advanced math classes in eighth grade can also dictate students’ achievement in math at the college level and beyond. That’s why any factor that nudges a young person toward more-advanced math classes can make a big difference in their life.

And who wields significant influence in how students are tracked? Teachers. Of the principals who reported that students were in some way grouped by achievement level, more than 80 percent reported using teacher recommendations as one consideration when making their decisions.

Researchers say that teachers should recognize the critical role they can play in determining students’ futures.

For instance, the way teachers decide to group students within their own classes could easily lead to a decision to group a child into a lower-track class in the future. And teachers’ recommendations could make a difference in whether a child is placed into more challenging math classes.

“When math teachers decide how to group students in their classes, they could reflect more often about whether some kids could benefit from more-challenging material,” Kaufman says. “Teachers could also consider whether some students who are struggling should receive interventions. For example, steering a child toward one-on-one tutoring could boost their math performance and set them up for a more challenging math class in middle school and beyond.”

Math teacher Candace Jackson in a classroom, photo courtesy of Candace Jackson

Math teacher Candace Jackson in her classroom.

Photo courtesy of Candace Jackson

Jackson has seen this scenario play out before her eyes.

She recalls a time she spent working as an academic interventionist, an educator assigned to help students overcome learning challenges.

“Often, these students lack confidence because they've been unsuccessful for so long,” Jackson says. She remembers one student in particular: “We were able to make math a conversation—something to understand, not just to memorize.”

Eventually, the student came to learn how to reason and make sense of the mathematics required to solve problems. It was a game-changer. After a year, he was able to move out of the intervention class and back into an elective class of his choosing.

Teacher Efforts Pay Dividends

Jackson’s story highlights the value that students can glean when they receive mentorship from experienced, knowledgeable math teachers.

“Often, they have assigned students to my class who seemed to not have the best chances for success,” she says. “But that was just how it looked.”

She recalls one year when she was assigned six students whose scores were so low that they weren't expected to pass.

“But after working with them—and to the students' surprise—four of them passed,” Jackson says. “And that's because we took the time to slow down, process the material, and look at things differently. It became a safe space for them.”

Unfortunately, the RAND data show that many students falling behind in math may not have access to experienced and knowledgeable teachers like Jackson. In fact, on average, only about 40 percent of U.S. principals reported assigning the most experienced, knowledgeable, or effective teachers to students who needed help with math. Another 40 percent reported that they don’t have flexibility to assign teachers to struggling students or that they simply assign teachers based on who has an opening in their schedule.

Only about 40 percent of U.S. principals reported assigning the most experienced, knowledgeable, or effective teachers to students who needed help with math.

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“Many teachers might see that their students are struggling with math, but they’re unsure how to help,” Steiner says. “Those teachers should demand that their school support them with more professional learning or additional supports for students, like math specialists and tutors. Teachers can also turn to their more knowledgeable peers for help. And, in turn, those who do have more math knowledge and experience can mentor other teachers in their school.”

Jackson says she’s noticed that, whether she’s mentoring less experienced teachers or her students, the underlying lesson is often the same.

“Math is all about relationships and connections,” Jackson says. “If students and teachers can understand why math is important, and that it’s primarily about reasoning and critical thinking—not memorization—it becomes easier to see the big picture and retain that knowledge.”

While Jackson’s 18 years of classroom experience reflect what the RAND data reveal, there’s still more to be discovered. Researchers will continue to explore the types of resources that are available to teachers, including professional development, teaching materials, and curriculum coherence.

Those upcoming studies will likely yield more insights for math teachers—and some for principals, administrators, and policymakers. But one takeaway is already clear.

“To put it simply, math teachers and their opinions, recommendations, encouragement, and mentorship matter deeply,” Kaufman says. “We hope this study will inspire math teachers to really tap into the full potential of their power. The influence they have can be life-changing for students.”

Project Credits

Maria Gardner (writing), Haley Okuley (design), and Marissa Norris (production)

More About This Article

The research on which this article is based was conducted by RAND researchers. The full reports, Elementary and Middle School Opportunity Structures That Factor into Students' Math Learning: Findings from the American Mathematics Educator Study (by Julia H. Kaufman, Lauren Covelli, and Pierrce Holmes; 2024) and Access to Mathematics Learning and Postsecondary Preparation Opportunities in High School: Findings from the 2023 American Mathematics Educator Study (by Elizabeth D. Steiner, Sam Morales, and Christine Mulhern; 2024), were peer-reviewed and published to rand.org; they are free to read online or download for personal use. Learn more about RAND copyright and permissions.

This research was sponsored by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.