Too Many of Indiana’s K-12 Students Lack Proficiency in Math and Are Unprepared to Participate in our STEM Economy. A New Pilot Program Aims to Help Solve This.

Claire Fiddian-Green is the President & CEO of the Richard M. Fairbanks Foundation.

Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) fields are crucial to Indiana’s present and future economy, and mastery of math is a building block for STEM success. Unfortunately, persistently low rates of math proficiency among Indiana’s K-12 students threaten Indiana’s ongoing economic vitality. We must find effective ways to address this alarming skills gap, especially for students of color and students from low-income families.

Over the past decade, Indiana’s K-12 academic performance in math, as measured by statewide assessments, has remained relatively flat and disappointingly lowFor example, in 2019, less than half of Hoosier students in grades 3-8 passed the math portion of ILEARN. These results were mirrored in Indiana’s 2019 results on the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP), otherwise known as the Nation’s Scorecard. Only 47% of Hoosier fourth graders and 37% of eighth graders demonstrated proficiency in math on NAEP.

Even more troubling are disparities in these education outcomes, particularly for Black and Hispanic students as well as for students from low-income families. On the math portion of the 2019 ILEARN, for example, the passing rate for White students was 54.6% compared to 22.5% for Black students and 33.4% for Hispanic students. In addition, the passing rate for students who received free or reduced-price lunches was 33.4% compared to 61.7% for students from higher-income families.

These persistent education disparities, especially by income, may have grown worse due to COVID-19 related stay-at-home orders. Remote learning has been more challenging for students whose families cannot afford high-speed internet or who lack devices like laptops. A new study by Raj Chetty et al. examines the impact of COVID-19 on a variety of indicators and found that a sample of elementary school students from low-income families suffered a steeper math learning loss than their middle-and higher-income peers between mid-March and mid-May.

It is clear that Indiana must do more to prepare all students – regardless of race, socioeconomic status, or other characteristics – to successfully enter careers in STEM, and that begins with mastering math skills in elementary and middle school.

To help solve inequities in math outcomes and low rates of math proficiency overall, the Richard M. Fairbanks Foundation has awarded a $1.54 million grant over three years to launch a pilot aimed at significantly improving math instruction delivered by current classroom teachers in Indianapolis public schools. The pilot will be administered by The Mind Trust in partnership with Instruction Partners, a national nonprofit focused on improving instruction, and will include eight public schools from three local charter school networks: Christel House Schools, Tindley Accelerated Schools and Victory College Prep. Of the Christel House student body, 49% of students are Hispanic and 26% are Black, while 87% of students receive free or reduced-price meals. At Tindley, 87% of students are Black, 7% are Hispanic and 5% are multiracial, while 86% of students receive free or reduced-price meals. At Victory College Prep, Black students comprise 64% and Hispanic students comprise 15% of the student body, while 91% of students receive free or reduced-price meals.

Research shows that teachers are the single largest in-school driver of student achievement. Over the next three years, The Mind Trust and Instruction Partners will work in partnership with teachers and school leaders to build the pedagogical and content knowledge and skills needed to improve daily math instruction. Additionally, through the pilot, The Mind Trust and Instruction Partners will develop a set of tools and strategies to improve the teaching of math that can be replicated across all public schools in Indiana. Finally, the partner organizations will share lessons learned from this intensive pilot with teacher preparation programs to help inform the content and design of postsecondary education curricula delivered to aspiring teachers.

Solving the math skills gap is a complex challenge, but it is abundantly clear that what we have tried in the past has not worked for the majority of Hoosier students. Implementing innovative programs designed for scale and replication, and rigorously analyzing program results, are two clear steps we can take as we work to improve K-12 math proficiency levels and ensure all Indiana high school graduates – regardless of race or family income – are prepared for careers in STEM.

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