SREB Report Relates Importance of Math Education

by Lauren Provencher / Feb 27, 2020

Early math competencies are essential for creating a strong foundation for middle and high school students’ success in mathematics and for their entrance into the workforce, according to a 2019 report by the Southern Regional Education Board (SREB).

The report, “Early Math Matters: Factoring in Teacher Knowledge and Practice,” relates the importance of early math education, reveals aspects of the current status quo in math instruction, examines the unpreparedness of elementary teachers, and highlights the lack of appropriate professional development opportunities that emphasize math content knowledge.

The piece also addresses the negative effects of math anxiety and provides recommendations on how to raise math achievement.

As the global economy continues to evolve, “Early Math Matters” says math achievement is more important than ever for success and starting a career. The foundations necessary to be able to succeed at that level, however, formulate before and during elementary school years.

According to the piece, studies have shown early math skills to be superior predictors of later academic success than students’ early reading skills. Failure to develop math skills before entering school leaves children at a disadvantage, with a higher chance of struggling in math later in their academic career. Unfortunately, many students entering school have not had effective math experiences to accelerate their future growth.

The report revealed a noticeable gap in the abilities of children in middle grades to apply math concepts compared to children in elementary grades. In 2017 SREB examined the number of fourth and eighth graders who scored at or above the proficiency level established by the National Assessment of Educational Progress in the SREB states. The report also highlighted how these trends can be reversed:

  1. Elementary math teachers need stronger mathematical content knowledge that allows them to teach the subject in ways that allow students to gain a thorough comprehension of mathematical concepts.
  2. Teachers, parents, and children should be encouraged to have a positive mindset about math topics to reduce unreasonable expectations and math anxiety.

The importance of mathematical content knowledge and whether educators have gained it is emphasized throughout the report. Comprehension of math content is knowledge that is used to perform the processes of teaching math.

For younger students, teaching math is composed of three learning trajectories: the mathematical content goal, the developmental progression of children’s thinking and learning, and instructional tasks and teaching strategies that help children move along progressively.

Many teachers are underprepared to teach students math, according to the report. A 2016 review by the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) found that only 13% of 860 undergraduate elementary teacher-preparedness programs covered critical math topics such as problem-solving skills, geometry, data, and probability. Another NCTQ report in 2019 found that 25% of teacher candidates failed the math portion of a typical elementary licensing exam.

The report also addresses math anxiety and the negative impact it has on students, teachers, and parents. Math anxiety is defined in the review as “a negative emotional response to mathematics tasks.” Teaching methods such as encouraging only the correct answers instead of focusing on developing conceptual understandings may be a strong factor of math anxiety.             

Math anxiety among elementary education majors is common. These students have some of the highest levels of math anxiety among all college students, creating a cycle in which students can pick up on a teacher’s anxiety and become anxious themselves. The report emphasizes that states should address math anxiety in teacher-preparedness programs and support methods that both parents and teachers can implement to reduce the issue.

Teacher-preparedness and professional development programs that build math content knowledge and address math anxiety can increase achievement in the subject.

While many students enter elementary school underprepared for math, effective teacher-preparedness and professional development programs that build math content knowledge and address math anxiety can increase achievement in the subject in high school and during postsecondary education.


The Southern Regional Education Board works with states to improve public education from early childhood through doctoral studies. Learn more.