STEM Equity

New Reports Examine Inequity in Math Ed, Offer Steps Forward

The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) has issued two extensive publications — one for elementary educators and the other for middle school educators — on how to help all students view themselves as "capable learners and doers" of math. The latest reports are follow-ons to one issued in 2018 covering high school math and are meant to serve as a callout to school and district leaders, teachers and others to "confront inequitable policies and practices" in math education, many of which have become especially evident since the onset of COVID-19.

As the organization noted, children's early math success (as early as age 5) serves as a "predictor" for later success in both math and education. Yet there are structures and practices put in place in those early years, the authors have argued, that either "contribute significantly" to students' success and confidence with math or limit it.

As an example, NCTM pointed to the use of "ability grouping" and tracking students, which the council called "inequitable," since their use tends to steer students into "qualitatively different courses." According to the reports, these practices "perpetuates privilege for a few and marginality for others." The middle school report offered a story profiling how that might play out in one math classroom, where the "advanced" students are encouraged by the teacher to take on extra work once they've completed the initial problem; those who are struggling are pushed to take their questions to the afternoon session with their specialist; and the bilingual students are reminded to speak English as they're working on the problem.

The reports also emphasized the importance of using math instruction that was "consistent with research-informed and equitable teaching practices," which can help nurture students' sense of confidence in their math "identities" and inspire them to continue with further learning.

The organization also promoted the importance of schools helping their students build a "strong foundation of deep mathematical understanding" through pathways that might vary by grade level but ensure that each child is getting a "high-quality" math education.

"Disparities in learning opportunities and outcomes in mathematics education on the basis of race, class, culture, language, gender and ability status are still too far prevalent," concluded DeAnn Huinker, a professor of math education and the lead writer for "Catalyzing Change in Early Childhood and Elementary Mathematics." "All stakeholders must examine beliefs about who is capable of doing and understanding mathematics, disrupt existing inequitable practices and catalyze change toward creating a just, equitable and inclusive system in early childhood and elementary mathematics."

"Students' middle school experience is a rich place where they further develop deep mathematical understanding in ways that build on and extend previous knowledge but also empower them to understand and critique their world," added Sarah Bush, an associate professor in K-12 STEM education at the University of Central Florida and lead writer of "Catalyzing Change in Middle School Mathematics," in a statement. "The mathematics learned in middle school is extremely important. How we think about teaching students and preparing our educators may need to shift focus, especially in the current environment. Stakeholders involved with middle school mathematics are in a position with endless potential to make a difference in the lives of young adolescents."

Currently through October, NCTM is hosting and recording a series of Zoom webinars, in a program called "100 Days of Professional Learning," including numerous sessions that examine aspects of the reports. Those are openly available for registration and viewing on the NCTM website. The reports themselves can be ordered through the organization's Catalyzing Change landing page.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.