Leveling the Math Playing Field
Mathematics education in the U.S. has long faced challenges. The recent shift to online learning has only widened the educational opportunity gap between affluent and disadvantaged students who lack computers and internet connectivity and are now falling even further behind. In this era of accountability, long-standing inequities are being exposed, and they demand our attention — now.
Arbitrary circumstances into which kids are born — such as their race, ethnicity, ZIP code and socioeconomic status — should not be predictors of academic success. The fact that certain groups of students consistently underperform is an indication that our system is broken.
Opportunities Don’t Add Up
As dialogue around the “achievement gap” shifts to the more appropriate term “opportunity gap,” which places responsibility on an inequitable system that is not providing opportunities for all kids to achieve to the best of their potential, our focus as a country must be on implementing sensible policies and practices that enhance the quality of every child’s education.
In its position paper on access and equity in mathematics education, the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) states:
“Acknowledging and addressing factors that contribute to differential outcomes among groups of students are critical to ensuring that all students routinely have opportunities to experience high-quality mathematics instruction, learn challenging mathematics content, and receive the support necessary to be successful.”
The reality is: The mathematics playing field in this country isn’t level. Certain groups of students have advantages either in their access to, or their likelihood to be successful in, math.
In my professional experience as a high school math teacher, district math content specialist, state math teacher leader and professional learning provider, I have seen the many ways the “system” at every level contributes to these inequities. I have sought to learn and understand the causes and have seen firsthand the effects. Although this work isn’t easy or straightforward, I believe that if stakeholders from all levels of the education system work together to correct the issues that contribute to these inequities, we could make true and lasting change toward closing the opportunity gap.
A common, underlying issue in many systems is low expectations. In “The Opportunity Myth,” research showed that while 71% of students were successful in their high school course work, only 17% exhibited success with grade-level standards. Well-meaning educators would likely say they do this to set students up to experience success with math assignments. But the reality is, this practice prohibits students from even having access to appropriately challenging mathematics, let alone being truly successful with it.
What I’ve found is that, more often than not, schools track students into courses that are below, at, or above grade-level based on arbitrary tests or scores, or even on their perceived ability level. These common practices make it difficult or almost impossible to shift into a higher track. This bias eliminates some students’ opportunities to even access grade-level math, much less higher-level coursework.
Years ago, my principal challenged our math department when we wanted to add a new course, Algebra I Foundations, for students that we worried wouldn’t be successful in a standard algebra I course. Although our intentions were good in wanting to find a way for students to feel successful in an adapted course, our principal rightly pointed out that these students would be engaging in coursework that was less than algebra I. In doing so, we would be perpetuating the cycle of underachievement for the very students we wanted to help.
With this realization, we shifted our approach to provide a support class for our students, in addition to the standard algebra I class. During the support class, we provided just-in-time intervention on key, unfinished learning and previewed upcoming algebra I content. Teachers were strategic about using graphing technology, such as Texas Instruments (TI) calculators, to visualize key mathematical concepts to help students break through computational road blocks. This approach ultimately allowed students to succeed in appropriate, grade-level coursework. To support teachers in using technology effectively and strategically in the classroom, TI hosts free, weekly webinars and archives past webinars.
Classroom Practice Counts
In addition to course offerings, common instructional practices contribute to systemic inequity, as well. Many math classrooms today look much like they did when I was a student, several decades ago. The teacher lectures about a new math concept while students copy the teacher’s step-by-step approach to arriving at an answer. Then, in small groups or independently, students complete several examples that mirror the example the teacher provided. Finally, students are assigned 20 or more practice problems for homework. The next day’s lesson often begins with the teacher doing problems from the homework assignment that students found challenging. Then the cycle repeats itself.
In this all-too-common model, student thinking and sense-making are barely evident, if at all. Although teachers acknowledge the diversity of students’ backgrounds, understanding and life experiences that they bring into class every day, there are no accommodations made in routine lessons. Students who don’t look or think like their teachers are likely to be frustrated and disengaged; positive academic outcomes become even more difficult to achieve.
Make Sense of Math
If, instead, teachers would encourage students to make sense of math in their preferred way of learning, and create classroom structures that highlight student thinking and varied approaches for solving problems, then the likelihood of all students feeling valued, engaged and learning math would likely skyrocket.
As is the case today, instructional approaches are anchored in conceptual understanding that requires teachers have vast content knowledge. This deep level of understanding is often lacking among teachers who might have been successful in traditional math courses in the past. In fact, it was for me when I first began teaching. I like to say, I learned more mathematics in my first five years of teaching than in all of my previous coursework!
While it may be easier for teachers to gravitate toward a “show-and-tell” instructional approach, this prohibits students from demonstrating their unique ways of understanding a particular concept. TI offers many lessons and activities that support students’ sense-making and ability to approach mathematics ideas in their own unique ways. Additionally, the STEM learning resources tap into student interests and flexibility in thinking and approaches.
Relationships Come First
At the heart of access and equity issues, and cornerstone to leveling the mathematics playing field, is relationships. The art of good teaching lies in understanding the student well enough to provide the right environment for them to learn and flourish. As outlined in “The Impact of Identity in K–8 Mathematics: Rethinking Equity-Based Practices,” when classroom teachers focus on students’ mathematical identities and agencies, they are creating ripe conditions for students to achieve.
It goes without saying that this is extremely hard work. This is not a situation requiring a simple, technical change, but rather a complex, adaptive change (according to Ronald A. Heifetz) that takes a significant investment of time and effort. However, the complexity and difficulty of this change need not impede progress. Even small, incremental changes for the better can make a big difference in student outcomes.
If educators at all levels, from the classroom to the boardroom, prioritize high expectations for all students and embrace a relentless commitment to equitable outcomes, we can make strides toward providing more consistent and equitable education to the students entrusted to our care. And for all of us in the education field, the success of students must be our primary motivator. Together, we can help every student, and our country, fulfill its potential.
About the author: Joanie Funderburk is a lifelong learner with a passion for leadership, education and professional learning. She believes that relationships are the cornerstone of education. She enjoys leadership opportunities and staying on the cutting edge of research and work around curriculum, standards and assessment. She is most interested in understanding how educational systems can contribute to, or deter from, a students’ academic success and on correcting issues that do not align with student learning.