Math Matters

U.S. students perform far below the world average in math, and common core can help.

U.S. Students Perform Far Below The World Average In Math, And Common Core Can Help

Today, American high school students perform far below the international average in math, despite the subject’s increasing importance for success in a 21st century economy. A new report from the Center for American Progress outlines how conceptual math, a piece of the Common Core standards, better prepares students for using math in real-world situations by not only teaching students procedures for doing math problems—like “carrying the 1”—but also how and why those procedures work.


Common Core standards add conceptual math to the traditional procedural way math is taught, allowing students to gain mathematical fluency and skill proficiency. CAP’s report outlines a few key ways conceptual math leads to improved outcomes for students:

  • Traditional math instruction focuses on rote memorization and glosses over the concepts that underlie math. Without a deep understanding of mathematical concepts, American students are not well prepared to problem solve effectively in order to apply their skills in real-world situations.
  • Students who learn conceptual math outperform students who are taught to use the traditional algorithmic approach.
  • In order to achieve mathematical fluency, students must learn to make connections and draw conclusions from new material. Conceptual math teaches the concepts underlying mathematical procedures, allowing students to do this.

By incorporating a stronger focus on concepts that build understanding behind math formulas and processes, students will be better prepared for a 21st century workforce that relies on problem solving and critical thinking skills. Our colleagues at CAP recommend a few steps that states and school districts can take to ensure the continued transition to higher math standards is successful. For example, states should stay the course with Common Core standards and aligned assessments, and districts should offer additional professional development opportunities for teachers and communicate regularly with parents. For more detailed recommendations read here.

Some experienced leaders and policy makers have joined on to support these recommendations. Gov. Jack Markell (D-DE) and former Gov. Bill Richardson (D-NM) took to twitter today to show the importance of this effort. For more detailed recommendations, read the full report here.

BOTTOM LINE: Math matters and our public K-12 schools are not preparing students to compete in today’s economy. But staying the course with Common Core standards and transitioning to conceptual math will better prepare students for using math in real-world situations.

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The positions of American Progress, and our policy experts, are independent, and the findings and conclusions presented are those of American Progress alone. A full list of supporters is available here. American Progress would like to acknowledge the many generous supporters who make our work possible.