Elementary and Middle School Opportunity Structures That Factor into Students’ Math Learning

Research Questions

  1. How extensive is tracking in K–8 schools, and which mathematics courses are offered to which students in middle school?
  2. Do students, especially those who are struggling in mathematics, have access to certified, knowledgeable mathematics teachers and principals?
  3. What school supports are available for students who are struggling in mathematics, and what proportion of struggling students are getting those supports?

Researchers use data from the RAND American Mathematics Educator Study surveys of public school principals and teachers to investigate three school structures—referred to as school opportunity structures throughout this report—that may affect kindergarten through 8th grade (K–8) students’ mathematics learning. These structures are tracking (i.e., grouping students by achievement level), teacher qualifications and assignments, and supports for struggling students.

This report is among the first to explore school structures that support students’ mathematics learning across the United States and in the four largest states: California, Florida, New York, and Texas. The authors do not examine the quality of mathematics instruction students receive or how much students have learned. Instead, they consider the ways that elementary and middle schools are organized to provide mathematics learning opportunities. Policy recommendations are aimed at helping leaders at the state, district, and school levels reflect on how schools support math learning and how school structures might be improved to set up all students for success in high school and beyond.

Key Findings

  • Tracking in mathematics classes starts early in many schools. According to principals’ self-reports, a greater proportion of Florida schools group students by achievement level than schools in other states. Furthermore, up to 20 percent more principals in large and low-poverty middle schools reported grouping students by achievement level into mathematics classes than in smaller and high-poverty middle schools.
  • A majority of principals of schools serving any K–8 grades reported using assessments or teacher recommendations to place students into achievement level groupings. Parent requests are also used to group students in 50 percent of low-poverty schools (versus 30 percent of high-poverty schools).
  • Middle school mathematics teachers are far more likely to have deep knowledge of mathematics pedagogy and content in the eyes of principals compared with elementary teachers.
  • Students who struggle in mathematics classes typically do not get the most experienced and knowledgeable teachers, although state context matters.
  • Compared with the rest of the country, Texas principals are more likely to report major obstacles that may overburden mathematics teachers at their schools; principals in high-poverty schools were similarly more likely than those in low-poverty schools to report such major obstacles.
  • A large majority of elementary and middle school principals reported providing many different types of supports for students struggling in mathematics; tiered intervention programming was reported as the most common. However, principals also reported that a minority of struggling students participate in these interventions.


  • Districts and schools should investigate ways to reduce biases in how students are tracked by achievement level within and into mathematics classes.
  • States and school systems should provide opportunities for teachers to build their knowledge of mathematics pedagogy and content, particularly at the elementary level.
  • School systems should assess the array of supports they offer and why students are or are not taking advantage of those supports when they struggle.

Research conducted by

This research was sponsored by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and conducted within RAND Education and Labor .

This report is part of the RAND research report series. RAND reports present research findings and objective analysis that address the challenges facing the public and private sectors. All RAND reports undergo rigorous peer review to ensure high standards for research quality and objectivity.

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RAND is a nonprofit institution that helps improve policy and decisionmaking through research and analysis. RAND’s publications do not necessarily reflect the opinions of its research clients and sponsors.

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