Middle School Anxiety is Real - but Math Anxiety Doesn’t Have to Be

How many of us would volunteer to go back in time to middle school? 

Not me. My middle school years held true to the stereotypes: I was awkward and uncertain, and while many academic subjects came easily to me, I struggled with math – which shook my confidence even more.

That experience is not unique, even decades later. On the heels of the pandemic, new research shows that the average eighth grader is now three years below grade level in math. And math anxiety can have a snowball effect that leads to continued challenges for students over time.

Now for the good news. Across the country, we have clear momentum for improving students’ experiences in math class. 

First, public sentiment underscores the urgency and major philanthropy is on board. A recent survey commissioned by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation shows that parents and teachers agree that math is among the academic subjects most in need of updating and improvement. The Gates Foundation has made a $1.1 B investment in these improvements, including a focus on high-quality math curricula that promote student engagement.

Next, examples of those curricula exist and initial results from implementation are promising. A new report from WestEd demonstrates how one math curriculum has led to increased achievement in nine states. Researchers investigated the use of Desmos Math 6-8, a technology-enhanced core curriculum adapted from the open source Illustrative Mathematics (both EdReports-green-rated offerings). Schools with teachers who used Desmos Math in the 2021-22 school year posted significantly higher middle grade math scores than schools with teachers who did not, despite the pandemic. Math achievement in the comparison schools decreased during this period. 

Finally, the report identifies the role of professional learning to support teachers in implementing high-quality math materials. This is an area for growth across the country, as a scan of CurriculumHQ’s 50-state map shows wide variation in state support for curriculum-based teacher training. Leading states are committing resources to this kind of support (as I’ve highlighted in Nebraska and Delaware) and offer examples for others to follow.

It’s more important now than ever to implement interventions that are proven to accelerate math learning and help students recover from pandemic-related learning loss, especially during the critical middle school years. With the right materials and professional support, teachers can help students overcome math anxiety and gain confidence instead of losing it during an already challenging stage.

People like me won’t ever go back in time to middle school – and our kids who are there right now won’t ever get a re-do. We owe it to them to support high-quality, evidence-based math instruction that can help them today.

Jocelyn Pickford is an education policy and communications specialist focusing on understanding and promoting practitioner-informed public policy across the private, public and non-profit sectors as a Senior Affiliate with HCM Strategists. She began her career in education as a high school English teacher in a regular and special education inclusion classroom and is now a public school parent and recent member of her local district school board. Previously, Jocelyn led the design, launch and implementation of the Teaching Ambassador Fellowship at the U.S. Department of Education to integrate teachers into the national education policy dialogue. Jocelyn’s passion for her work was seeded during her own public school education and took root during her classroom teaching experience in Fairfax County, Virginia, where she led action research and presented instructional materials to a variety of audiences. Jocelyn earned her bachelor’s degree from Trinity College (CT), working as a professional writer and editor prior to becoming a teacher, and obtained her master’s in secondary education from the George Washington University. Jocelyn lives outside Philadelphia with her husband and two children.