Putting Foundational Maths on an Equal Footing with Reading

Paul Miller, Head of Global Implementation, Whizz Education


In October 2019, the World Bank and UNESCO Institute for Statistics proposed a new metric, Learning Poverty, designed to spotlight low levels of learning and track progress toward ensuring that all children acquire foundational skills.  Its technical conceptions of learning poverty have so far been centred on reading comprehension. While mathematics (or, at least, numeracy) is placed alongside reading as a core literacy, it has not yet benefited from the same definition and measurement.

One justification for prioritising foundational literacy is that students have made less progress in reading than in mathematics.  However, an emerging insight from the pandemic is that, counterintuitively, learning loss (defined as the erosion of previously acquired knowledge) is greater in mathematics than in reading.  Studies in contexts as wide-ranging as the US[1] and rural Africa[2] show that not only have students lost more ground in mathematics, the achievement gap between students in different socioeconomic groups has been exacerbated.

Therefore, it is time to place mathematics on an equal footing with reading and embrace both as foundational components of education. Investment targeted at accelerated learning for struggling students should be expanded beyond early grade literacy.

In a global context, we must also consider what learning poverty means in mathematics. The ability to read fluently lends itself to well-defined measures. What equivalents are available for mathematics?  Whizz’s own Maths Age metric, as defined by our virtual tutor Maths-Whizz, is one candidate as a measure of students’ core mathematical knowledge and skills (calibrated to an underlying set of foundational knowledge outcomes aligned to rigorous international standards).  It was, in fact, modelled on the existing ‘Reading Age’ metric and serves much the same purpose of tracking students’ comparative levels of content mastery indexed by age. Other skills, such as problem-solving and reasoning, are equally deserving of our attention but perhaps more challenging to define and measure.

Of course, measurement must never get in the way of good learning and teaching.  However, foundational learning metrics can highlight students’ greatest areas of need.  They can also remind us of the uncomfortable truth that the attainment gap has persisted and grown during the pandemic. This truth belongs to mathematics just as much as it does to reading.  Learning poverty must encompass both to ensure children are equipped with the full range of skills they’ll need to thrive in society.


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