Advancing Equity in Math Classrooms: What We Mean When We Say ‘Reimagine Math Teaching and Learning’

This article was originally posted on Carnegie Math Pathways

A little over a year after the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, we’re reflecting on the commitment to equity we reaffirmed in our statement after their deaths. We continue to believe that “educated citizens are key to a just and equitable society.” Yet we continue to see persistent barriers to math education that impact who has access to and succeeds in postsecondary education. These barriers continue to hold back students—especially Black, Latinx, Indigenous, and low-income students—from reaching their full potential not just in college and the workforce but as citizens. Students can earn higher salaries with a degree, but what more could they accomplish equipped with and empowered by a firm grasp of statistical or quantitative reasoning? What systems, institutions, or policies could they make more just or transform to benefit their communities?

Our contribution to the fight to make math education more equitable has been proving that all students, regardless of demographics, can succeed directly in college-level math, saving students time, money, and morale. But the impact of high quality math education can be so much more far-reaching than the degree our students earn. It can influence decisions big and small that affect our lives and those around us, from choosing a credit card to evaluating climate change data.

Developed over the course of our first 10 years of operation, here are some of the components of high quality math education that we’ve learned can not only make student success in math and college more equitable but can make math an empowering tool for students to grow self-sufficiency and to advocate for themselves in their lives.

Culturally relevant curricula

When students see themselves in culturally relevant curricula, they can gain a firmer understanding of how math can be applied to the real world and how they can use it to empower themselves and their communities. It also reaffirms the reality that their lived experiences have a place in their math classrooms, despite what previous math learning experiences may have led them to believe.

Too often, “rigor” in math is associated with abstract, decontextualized algebra or calculus content. But if, instead, rigorous math challenges students to be involved in their own learning and to think critically, then what we think of as rigorous math should include contextualized statistical and quantitative reasoning. Positioning algebra and calculus as the gold standard of mathematical rigor reinforces dominant narratives about ability and race by framing inequitable experiences and outcomes as meritocratic. 1 2

By providing content that is more accessible (yet no less rigorous than algebra or calculus), students can begin to see how they are capable of excelling in complex math. Jennifer Morris, a Quantway instructor at the College of Menominee Nation, which in any given semester serves students representing 12 to 16 different Native American tribes, summed it up this way: “Students know that they’re not represented in the textbooks, and they’ve known it all along. But until they see themselves represented, they don’t realize what an impact that has.”

Showing students they’re capable of doing math

Social-emotional activities that promote growth mindset, or the belief that ability can be strengthened through hard work and the right support, are crucial to helping students unlearn the deeply ingrained messaging they’ve received about who is and isn’t a “math person.” We regularly hear from students who discontinued their studies because they simply could not earn the math credit needed to graduate.

One concrete way we help foster students’ growth mindset is by assigning a reading in each Pathways course about the neuroscience of learning and how we can grow our brains. Following the reading, students complete a short set of activities reflecting on the article. In a randomized control study, 20% of the students in the control group withdrew from the course, compared to only 9% of the students who read the growth mindset article.

While research shows we can positively build up students’ beliefs about themselves as math learners and doers, we can’t rely on growth mindset alone to make math classrooms more equitable. Doing so can place disproportionate responsibility on students for their success when a significant portion of it depends on one key person–their instructor.

Showing instructors that their students are capable of doing math

Students benefit from a growth mindset but many may not come to believe they have a high capacity to learn if their instructor doesn’t believe it first. Racial and gender-based stereotypes about math talent and ability can have profound negative effects on minoritized students. This is why a significant, ongoing commitment to examining how we perceive students is essential if we want to see more equitable outcomes.

In Pathways courses, we prepare educators by helping them expand their thinking about what students can achieve. This is put into acute focus when they encounter the collaborative learning aspect of Pathways courses for the first time, wherein instructors play more of a facilitator role, allowing students to struggle productively to arrive at their answers. It’s not uncommon for educators to be surprised by how much students can learn without their guidance, especially in the online versions of our courses where students collaborate on Zoom, often without the instructor.

“The thing that surprised me the most about teaching (Quantway online),” George Hurlburt, math faculty at SUNY Corning Community College, said, “is how successful the students could be without the teacher being in the room. I really thought it would be a problem and that I would have to regularly join the collaboration to help the students get through…But they didn’t quit and that’s what impressed me the most about them.”

Reimagining math teaching and learning

Truly reimagined math teaching and learning ensures that pedagogy and curricula do not perpetuate the harm that traditional math models inflict, from stereotyping to tracking to cutting down students’ confidence. The devastation of last year’s killings and the gross inequities laid bare by the pandemic continue to challenge us to examine how to dismantle systems that hold back minoritized students.

We’re looking critically at our course assessments—can we better align them with the collaboration and communication skills students have built in Carnegie Math Pathways courses? We’re examining our social emotional supports—can they be more robust in the online space? And we’re finding ways to provide better scaffolding for students to have conversations about math lessons contextualized with social justice issues.

A generation of students is grappling with how to move forward after experiencing deeply traumatic moments in our country’s history. Everyone has a part to play in how we help our students respond. Making math more equitable and more empowering is ours, and we’re honored to continue this mission in the next decade.

1 Battey, D., & Leyva, L. A. (2016). A framework for understanding whiteness in mathematics education. Journal of Urban Mathematics Education, 9(2), 49–80. https://doi.org/10.21423/jume-v9i2a294

2Leyva, L. A., McNeill, T., Marshall, B., & Guzmán, O. (2021, March). “It seems like they purposefully try to make as many kids drop”: An analysis of logics and mechanisms of racial-gendered inequality in introductory mathematics instruction. The Journal of Higher Education. https://doi.org/10.1080/00221546.2021.1879586

By Sarah Seavey
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