Helping students with math skills after learning loss from the COVID-19 pandemic

As more students face uncertainty this school year, the concern is growing over how this will compound the learning loss experienced during the last school year, particularly in math.

The Texas Education Agency reports more than a 30 percent drop in math results on the STAAR test in districts where less than a quarter of classes were held in person the last school year. The districts where the majority of the instruction was in-person saw a 9 percent decrease in math. 


"I think starting with the Commissioner throughout the whole system, there's a recognition that this is a 3 to 5-year type of work that we need to do to really get kids caught up," said Duncan Klussmann, professor at the University of Houston and former superintendent of Spring Branch Independent School District.

"Without that practice, there were skills that started to revert, and then there were some skills that we weren't able to really maximize," said Tameka Atlee, academic team lead at Dekaney High School in Spring ISD. She explains those skills include problem-solving, analytical thinking, and collaboration.

Beyond the test scores, a 2020 study by the University of Oxford found students who stopped taking math classes at 16-years-old had lower levels of γ-aminobutyric acid (GABA), a brain chemical, in a key area involved in reasoning and learning compared to those who did not.

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Atlee emphasizes this is not a time to pump the breaks. 

"When you're in a race and you're starting to lose you don't start pulling back, you push forward. You dig deep and accelerate so we have a plan in our district to do that acceleration," said Atlee. 

This year the district began an extended school year program at two of its campuses. 

Francis Bugarin, student support specialist at Hirsh Elementary School, says there's also a focus on the professional development of teachers. 

"So, that they're really equipped with what they need to do in the classroom," he emphasized. Outside of the classroom, Atlee and Bugarin stress -- practicing math skills are home is simple.

"Everything that we do is math!" Bugarin said.

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Atlee says she's a mother of 5 and has advice on easy ways to practice analytical and problem-solving skills. 

"I find myself asking my children to talk. 'What do you mean? Explain that to me. Say that to me a different way.' Those are practicing your analytical skills.  Problem-solving is when they come to me and ask me, 'Mommy can you do this for me?' or 'Mom, can you help me with this?' Well, tell me what you would do?" Atlee explained.

If you have more than one child, Atlee suggests letting them work together as she does with her 12th and 4th graders. She encourages the 4th grader to watch the older sibling doing advanced math. 

"Because then the fourth-grader is able to go back and use those skills in his fourth-grade classroom. But what you don't realize that you've done is planted a seed so when he gets to it in algebra, he's also seen it," she stressed.

For younger kids, Bugarin says he always starts with making sure they understand the purpose.

"These little kids they're not going to do anything until they know what they need to do. They need to have a purpose. So, they need to see the connection of that real-world to what they're learning," he added. He says dividing up a pizza or keeping score in a game are all opportunities for fun, purposeful math lessons.

They stress it's not so much about practicing arithmetic but those life skills that encourage learning.

"If you continue to practice those problem-solving skills then when you get to the classroom, it's so easy for us to tie that in and you're used to doing it already," Atlee concluded.



Dr. Carrie Cutler's blog 
She's a math education professor at the University of Houston and author of  "Math-Positive Mindsets: Growing a Child's Mind Without Losing Yours." Her blog features videos and tips to find opportunities for math skills building throughout daily tasks.

Khan Academy
Free math courses and lessons for grades 1 and up.

Houston Public Library Brainfuse 
Brainfuse offers free, 24/7 live tutoring online. Its summer skills camp for grades 3-12 also offers lessons in math.

Rice University School Mathematics Project 

National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, Figure This!