Lack of fluency in math poses a threat to our region’s economic future

We should demand that schools across the region have aggressive strategies that put numeracy at the center of the education agenda.

Federal agencies, Fortune-500 companies, scores of businesses and nonprofits are scouring the workforce in the D.C. region to fill positions, with thousands of jobs currently going unfilled.

The problem will become even more pronounced as employers increasingly lean on new employees with solid math skills as a prerequisite. The problem is that math skills, especially in the area’s younger generations, are sorely lacking.

The deficit is particularly pronounced among K-12 students. Tests show “catastrophic” losses in Virginia according to Gov. Glen Youngkin. In Maryland, the number of students who tested as “proficient” in math dropped below pre-pandemic levels. And fourth- and eighth-grade students at Washington, D.C. schools experienced precipitous drops in scores.

Why does this matter? It’s simple: math skills are essential to economic growth and prosperity in our region.

From numerous roles in the federal government to federal contractors and business services professions that service federal agencies and companies, many jobs here rely on numeracy. At the same time, the new economy unfolding around us is firmly anchored in math with in-demand jobs in fields such as artificial intelligence, blockchain development, cyber security and data science.

Facility with math provides the opportunity for all students to be successful, regardless of their backgrounds. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median salary for math-related careers in 2022 was $99,590, more than double the national figure of $46,310 for all occupations.

With all of that in mind, area education leaders must take decisive action to ensure students across the region build strong math skills.

We should replicate efforts by other states to do so.

  • For example, Alabama approved legislation that ensures every elementary school has a math coach. The new law sets up a process to vet and approve high-quality instructional materials and curricula and establishes academies to build a pipeline of principals trained in effective math intervention strategies.
  •   New Jersey created a tutoring corps that serves students statewide in pre-K through eighth grade. The corps works during and after school, as well as over the summer, to ensure minimal drop-off during breaks.
  • Nebraska, Louisiana, Colorado, and Ohio now offer Zearn, a high-quality math supplemental resource. It is free to all public-school students and proven to improve performance.
  • Texas put in place another resource, this time for educators: an interactive tool that gives real-time data insights about student performance in math, enabling early intervention when performance lags.

Part of the solution to this issue in our region also lies in addressing a cultural phenomenon — the false notion that people are either “good at math” or “bad at math.” For decades, the accepted norm has been that people self-select and divide themselves along these lines. That process begins during early education years. And if it solidifies during high school, people are likely to define themselves that way for the rest of their lives — with jobs increasingly relying on math and science skills, students and children face a severe disadvantage if they believe they are born to fail in math.

Parents in our area are supportive of blowing up that false choice. A recent poll by SurveyUSA of D.C. parents found that while some students believe they are not a “math person,” 89% of parents disagree, saying anyone can be a “math person.”

All of us — from parents and business leaders to philanthropies and others—must hold elected and education leaders accountable. We should demand that schools across the region have aggressive strategies that put numeracy at the center of the education agenda. If they don’t, economic opportunity for today’s students  — as the next generation of federal and corporate workers — will slip away.

Jim Cowen is executive director of the Collaborative for Student Success, a nonprofit that aims to ensure all kids are prepared for success in school, college, and careers. Jack McDougle is president and CEO of The Greater Washington Board of Trade, a leading business organization that drives solutions for inclusive economic growth and livability in the region.

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