Report looks at how school structures impact math education

Data from the RAND American Mathematics Educator Study on three factors that may impact K-8 students’ math education, are covered in the report Elementary and Middle School Opportunity Structures That Factor into Students’ Math Learning: Findings from the American Mathematics Educator Study, released by the organization in February.

The survey of public school principals and teachers from California and around the U.S. considered three school structures, called “school opportunity structures” by RAND, including tracking (grouping students by level of achievement), teacher qualifications and assignments, and supports available to students who are struggling academically.

While the quality of instruction or how much students learned was not examined, authors did explore ways that elementary and middle schools are organized to provide these opportunities.

Among the key findings:

  • Tracking in math courses starts early in a fair number of schools. “Up to 20 percent more principals in large and low-poverty middle schools reported grouping students by achievement level into mathematics classes than in smaller and high-poverty middle schools,” the report states.
  • Assessments and teacher recommendations are the most common determining factors for achievement level placements. Parental requests were used to group students in half of low-poverty schools compared to 30 percent of high-poverty schools.
  • Principals consider middle school teachers more likely to have deep knowledge of math pedagogy and content.
  • Though the state they reside in does play a role, students who struggle with math often do not have the most experienced or knowledgeable teachers.
  • Most principals reported providing students with a variety of supports including tiered intervention programming. They did note that a minority of struggling students partake in the interventions, however.

Recommendations detailed in the report to help local educational agency leaders best support math instruction include identifying ways to reduce bias in how students are tracked by achievement level; providing teachers chances to build their knowledge base; and assessing the supports an LEA offers and why struggling students are or aren’t taking advantage of them.