Advice for smaller districts: Here are 4 ways to give students access to advanced math

Teachers in high-needs areas report using curricula from previous years compared to those in resource-abundant schools, according to a new report. It's up to education leaders to help close the gap.

Expanding opportunities for students to participate and excel in STEM-related courses has become one of the top priorities for administrators in recent years. Traditionally, the conversation has surrounded preparing female students for a career in the field. But what about students from smaller, less resourceful districts? Do students’ access to quality math decline when they’re located in high-needs schools?

The RAND Corporation, a nonprofit global policy think tank and research institute, recently published a report detailing how students in high-poverty districts don’t have access to advanced math courses compared to their counterparts. These inequities are established as early as middle school, according to the findings.

Using 2022 data from nationally representative surveys of principals and math teachers in grades K to 12, the researchers sought to explore students’ opportunities to prepare for and enroll in advanced math courses. Here’s what they found:

  • Small high schools, those in rural areas and institutions that mostly serve students from traditionally marginalized communities provide fewer opportunities for students to take advanced math (e.g. precalculus and AP math).
  • Uneven access to algebra I start before high school.
  • Teachers in high-needs schools admit to skipping standards-aligned content more often and were more likely to replace what was scrapped with curriculum from prior grade levels compared to teachers in resource-abundant schools.
  • A great number of teachers say they’re not able to devote as much time as they would like to math instruction in the 2021-22 school year; nearly 50% said they needed more support to deliver adequate math instruction.

“In the wake of the disproportionate impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on students living in poverty and students of color, these results highlight a critical need for resources to support teachers and to license student access to advanced courses,” the report reads.

In light of these findings, the researchers offer four recommendations for school and district leaders to close the gap in this area:

  1. Consider using federal and state funding to incorporate high-dosage tutoring programs for middle schoolers. This initiative should provide “high-quality support” to 8th graders taking algebra I and promote algebra I readiness for those not yet enrolled in the course.
  2. Education leaders should support teachers by providing them with standards-aligned curriculum materials and training to help them understand which content is crucial for future learning.
  3. Partner with postsecondary institutions to identify creative solutions to make advanced math opportunities accessible for all high school students, especially those in underserved communities.
  4. Communicate honestly about the importance of course-taking—”the earlier, the better.”

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Micah Ward
Micah Ward
Micah Ward is a District Administration staff writer. He recently earned his master’s degree in Journalism at the University of Alabama. He spent his time during graduate school working on his master’s thesis. He’s also a self-taught guitarist who loves playing folk-style music.

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