How Mathematics Plays a Role in Social Justice and Racial Equity

Mathematics doesn’t have much to do with social justice, right?

Wrong, says the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM).

That organization has published three books under the title, Catalyzing Change: Initiating Critical Conversations, which talk about how practices like tracking, ability grouping, and even the sequencing of mathematics classes can put children of color at a disadvantage.

The high school book came out in 2018, and there was such great interest in it that teachers and others asked for books at the elementary and middle school level. Those came out in spring of 2020.

DeAnn Huinker, professor of mathematics education in UWM’s School of Education, led the team that prepared the book focusing on elementary mathematics education. NCTM is the official author.

“The key focus of all the books is creating more equitable structures and instruction for mathematics,” she says. “What we do in our classrooms is going to engage each and every child in the deep learning they need for life.”

DeAnn Huinker

DeAnn Huinker

All of the books try to call out inequitable structures that exist in schools and school systems, said Huinker. At the high school level, for example, the book recommendations call for “de-tracking” mathematics and offering a single clear pathway. The traditional approach has been algebra, geometry, trigonometry and calculus in sequence. But, in Alabama, for example, this progression has changed. Students take the same courses their first two years, but can branch into higher-level courses on a variety of mathematical topics beyond calculus like statistics, finance, and data science.

With the traditional track, she says, “many assume it’s just the way things are done in high school mathematics, but it really creates many inequitable opportunities.” Marginalized students tend to be in tracks not as prestigious or that are targeted only for college-bound students, she adds.

While tracking is not as pervasive at the elementary level, students are often already grouped by ability level, with lower income and students of color often separated out into lower-ability groups. One solution, already being tested in some school systems is to have children of mixed abilities work in the same group, says Huinker. “Research has shown that in those types of settings where children of mixed abilities are learning and working together, all children thrive.”

In that type of setting, fewer children are repeating classes, and more formerly marginalized students are taking advanced classes, she adds.

Students of color and marginalized students often are not challenged because of a perception that they are not as academically able, says Huinker. As a result, an achievement gap is formed that is difficult to overcome. “It’s not because the students aren’t able, but because they haven’t been given the opportunities to achieve at higher levels.”

The Catalyzing Change books, which are written for administrators, teachers, parents, and policymakers, make four major recommendations – each tailored to elementary, middle school, or high school. All are designed to foster discussion.

  • Broaden the purposes of learning mathematics so students (1) develop deep mathematical understanding, (2) see how they can be empowered with math to understand, critique, and change the world, and (3) help children experience the wonder, joy, and beauty of mathematics. For example, says Huinker, show them the beauty in solving problems in different ways, and look at the use of mathematics in art.
  • Create equitable structures in mathematics. At the early childhood and elementary mathematics levels, this mean dismantling ability grouping and tracking, which can force some children to the margins and give privilege to others.
  • Implement equitable mathematics instruction. Make sure teaching in informed by research and all classes are taught by teachers who like and enjoy mathematics.
  • Build a strong foundation of mathematical knowledge with greater attention to conceptual understanding, reasoning, and sense making.

One other issue at the elementary level, added Huinker, is over testing and basing students’ placement and coursework on those tests, starting at the kindergarten level with readiness tests.

“It’s kind of sad, that we as adults, give tests and make observations and determine children’s lives,” she says. “We have closed doors and opportunities to them. We have made the decision for them, and we are not involving them in those conversations. Even if a child struggles, it doesn’t mean they can’t be successful; they may just need more support and opportunities.”

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