Nearly two-thirds of Michigan students in fifth, sixth, and seventh grades were not grade-level proficient on the 2019 state math assessment – the most recent devastating data point in a long period of stagnation and decline. According to national assessment data, Michigan’s fourth-grade math performance slipped from 27th in the nation in 2003 down to 38th in 2017, while eighth-grade math rankings languished in the mid-thirties. Low-income eighth graders slid down into the bottom five in the country.



These trends are deeply troubling, given that the problem-solving skills required to succeed in math are essential to the modern workforce. According to the Center for American Progress, “the demand and reward for workers who are skilled in critical thinking and problem-solving is rising, while the number of opportunities available to workers without these skills continues to decline.” To prepare Michigan students for an ever-evolving job market – and to become active citizens of the 21st century world – the state must improve its math performance.

To accomplish this, Michigan classrooms need a shift in instructional practice. A 21st century math class should be a place of exploration and discovery, guided by complex, open-ended problems that ask students to experiment, collaborate, think creatively, challenge and justify their ideas, and take ownership of their work. Math education researcher Jo Boaler has found that students who experience this approach are more engaged, attain deeper learning, and score higher on standardized tests than their peers in more traditional classrooms.

Such a transformation of math instruction won’t happen on its own. To make the shift, math teachers need meaningful support – high-quality instructional materials, modeling and examples of effective problem-solving lessons, and coaching and guidance from teachers who have successfully implemented 21st century instruction. In my work as a Michigan math teacher, I acutely felt the need for a comprehensive system of job-embedded professional development. Collaboration with master teachers would have significantly enhanced my practice – and my students would have reaped the rewards.

Michigan’s math proficiency requires dramatic improvement. To make this happen, the state must commit to developing students into 21st century problem-solvers – and give math teachers the training and ongoing support necessary to achieve that goal.