Rochelle Gutierrez defines equity in the math classroom as “the inability to predict mathematics achievement and participation based solely on student characteristics such as race, class, ethnicity, sex, beliefs, and proficiency in the dominant language.”4 Her definition includes four dimensions: (1) access, (2) achievement, (3) identity, and (4) power. Accessibility refers to the tangible resources students have access to, including quality instruction, rigorous curriculum, reasonable class size, technology, and a classroom environment that promotes participation. The achievement dimension examines tangible results for all students, including test scores and access to higher level classes within course progressions. Identity refers to the ability to see oneself reflected in the curriculum, making mathematics meaningful and significant. Finally, Gutierrez describes the power dimension as a way to measure whose voice is heard in the classroom, who gets to make decisions about what is taught, and how it is used. Power gives students the opportunity to use mathematics to critique society and the world around them.
Together the four dimensions allow us to measure how successfully students can navigate their own mathematics education along two axes. Access and achievement make up the dominant axis that measures how well students “play the game called mathematics.”5 That is, these are the necessary components students will need to show mastery in math as currently defined by the dominant culture. Meanwhile, identity and power comprise the critical axis, which measures students’ ability to change the game. The critical axis empowers students by making mathematics relevant and framing students as doers of mathematics, not just receivers of knowledge. A natural tension exists between these two axes, but Gutierrez argues that both are necessary to have true equity in the math classroom.6 Not all dimensions, however, have to be focused upon equally at all times. At times it will be necessary to focus on the dominant axis and to deprioritize the critical axis. At other times, the opposite will be true. Teachers must find balance and aim to focus on all four dimensions throughout the course.
Critical Race Theory and Accessibility
Critical Race Theory (CRT) was developed in the 1970’s in response to a lack of faculty and curriculum diversity at Harvard Law School.7 CRT attempted to expose the inequity of seemingly neutral laws that disproportionately affected people of color. CRT makes two assertions: (1) race is a social construct, and (2) racism is common and systemic.8 To better understand these assertions, we must more clearly define whiteness.
Critical Race Theorists argue that race is a social construct rather than a biological descriptor or identity. As such, whiteness is an ideology that functions through institutionalized racism, advantaging those who benefit from their whiteness without overt or malicious intentions.9 Individuals need not be racially conscious of their whiteness to “reap unearned privileges.”10 In fact, the definition of “white” has changed throughout history. Groups, such as Italian and Irish Americans, Jews, and Russians, who were once persecuted for otherness have since been extended membership. While membership does not erase past oppression, encompassed groups inherit and benefit from new privileges within this passive collective. Expanding the definition of whiteness over time indoctrinates a wider audience, which strengthens the “dominant position that produces white privilege,” and further normalizes whiteness and oppresses those outside the white boundary.11
Whiteness positions “White people, White ideas, and White behaviors as more valued institutionally and in classrooms, which may not always be visible in terms of curriculum designers and policy developers.”12 This mentality creates a form of covert, color-blind racism that does not outwardly discriminate against people based on appearance, but rather is based on a deficit mindset centered on “student failure, uncaring parents, and devaluing education.”13 This deficit mindset ultimately impacts access to quality mathematics instruction as described by Gutierrez.
Beyond symbolic or ideological notions, racism has a very real material impact on educational access. Seemingly color-blind policies that affect housing, taxes, and education produce “material stratification in resources” that disproportionately affect people of color in a negative manner.14 For example, tax policy that increases taxes on products is commonly known as regressive taxation, as it has a disproportionate impact on lower income individuals. Likewise, decreasing capital gains taxes disproportionately benefits wealthier individuals. These policies may seem race-neutral on the surface, but in reality they reinforce white privilege.
Funding differentials in schools are closely tied to local taxes and appear between urban and suburban school districts. Based on U.S. Census Bureau data, the median household income in Greenwich, CT from 2015-2019 was $152,577 while that in New Haven, CT was $42,222.15 According to the Connecticut State Department of Education, the Greenwich School District population was approximately 61.4% white. The district spent $22,370 per student in the 2019-2020 school year.16 Meanwhile, the New Haven Public School population was 12.4% white with district expenditures being $16,751 per student in the same year, approximately 25% less.17 School funding greatly impacts teacher quality, instructional materials and curricula, technology within schools, transportation, and achievement test scores. The starting salary of a new teacher with a Master’s degree in Greenwich during the 2020-2021 school year was $61,93218 while New Haven’s starting teacher salary was just $47,551, approximately 23% less than in Greenwich.19 With such large differentials, it is not surprising that Greenwich School District math teacher openings are rare while New Haven Public Schools openings are common. Frequent turnover means spending even more resources finding and training new math teachers.
Achievement and the Opportunity Gap
The gap in mathematics achievement between students of color and white students is well documented. During the COVID-19 pandemic, numerous reports indicated a widening of the gap. According to data reported by McKinsey and Company, schools in which over half the student population was white tested 31% lower than the historical average in mathematics on the i-Ready platform while schools comprised primarily of students of color tested 41% lower than the historical average.20
Gutierrez criticizes the notion of gap analyses as a form of measuring equity because it decontextualizes the data, thereby ignoring possible solutions. Gap analysis only considers the dominant axis – access and achievement. “Without the larger socio-political frame, achievement gap analyses perpetuate the notion that the problem of low achievement is” something that can be fixed by improving resources.21 Research abounds within math education on how to improve instruction of marginalized students, such as knowing your students in meaningful ways, scaffolding instruction upon prior learning, maintaining high expectations, believing all students are capable of learning advanced math, focusing on conceptual understanding, and building an environment that promotes cooperation and discourse. Yet despite all this research, the “achievement” gap persists. In fact, what is needed is not just a change in teaching strategies, but also a change in the curriculum to make mathematics meaningful and culturally relevant to students. The critical axis of equity must be addressed. Gutierrez suggests that solution-driven research that examines the context of schools and math programs that have successfully improved equity is essential.22
Identity and Deficit Mindsets
Deficit mindsets are endemic to color-blind math classrooms. The notion of an achievement gap reifies a mathematical hierarchy with “Whites and Asian Americans at the top.”23 By not acknowledging students as part of a larger cultural group, teachers miss critical opportunities to use “cultural knowledge about their students that could be used to communicate mathematical concepts and provide the scaffolding necessary for learning.”24 When students struggle to connect with the teacher’s perspective, teachers often develop deficit views of their students. When this mindset infiltrates schools, expectations are lowered and students are given fewer opportunities to use math in meaningful ways.
Meritocracy is the philosophy that any student can be successful if they work hard and persist. This idea is often used to justify color-blind philosophies. Laurie Rubel challenges meritocracy by asserting that “teachers who claim color-blindness…are, in effect, refusing to acknowledge the impact of enduring racial stratification on students and their families.”25 In failing to recognize how race impacts the way in which students navigate the structures of education, teachers adopt a deficit mindset that supports the notion that failure stems from “a lack of effort or ability.”26
Students recognize deficit mindsets in their teachers when teachers more frequently call on the “smart” students who can quickly learn and regurgitate math facts and procedures. Children who cannot answer quickly are often avoided, creating an unspoken message that these students are “dumb” or have nothing to contribute to the overall class. By the time students get to high school, students embody a clear mathematical identity as either being “good” or “bad” at math. This mindset is detrimental in a number of ways. Students who believe they are bad at math are less independent, put forth less effort to learn, more frequently doubt their own ability and work, are less likely to ask peers for help, and more frequently degrade themselves when struggling in the classroom.27
The deficit mindset is not unique to students. Despite the best of intentions, even good teachers fall victim to this mindset. Teachers tend to shelter their students from things with which they are not confident students can be successful. Gutierrez examined 23 math teacher candidates as they were introduced to the Interactive Mathematics Program (IMP), which would be used with a class of urban high school students. While the teacher candidates initially lauded the program for its focus on conceptual understanding and application, they later identified the program as being insufficient for their population of students who lacked the necessary prerequisite skills and reading fluency to accomplish such high level tasks. Expectations were immediately lowered when theory needed to be put into practice. Teacher candidates were surprised to later discover that the students had already successfully engaged in IMP.28 A similar mentality arose among most teachers within my own district when attempting to implement the College Board curriculum Spring Board. The Common Core State Standards of Mathematics identifies skill, conceptual understanding, and application as equally important components of rigor in the mathematics classroom.29 A sure sign of the presence of a deficit mindset is a prioritization of skill over conceptual understanding and application. Without these two pillars of rigor, students will continue to struggle to find significance and relevance in their study of math.
Power and a Call to Action
The National Council for Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) published the book Catalyzing Change in High School Mathematics (CCHSM) in 2018 as a call to create change within traditional approaches to math education. While never overtly calling the math classroom a racialized space, the authors clearly identify a lack of equity within math education as a primary concern within high schools. NCTM identifies four primary challenges for high school mathematics, each centered around the concept of equity.30
- Creating equitable structures within high school mathematics
- Supporting equitable instructional practices
- Outlining “Essential Concepts for Focus”
- Developing equitable and common pathways.
NCTM acknowledges the question that plagues every high school math classroom, “When will I ever need this?” Unlike k-8 mathematics, which is centered on math that students easily see within daily life (money, counting, building, drawing, etc.), high school mathematics is much more abstract and students have more difficulty connecting with the material. This lack of connection makes it more difficult for most to understand the purpose of learning high school mathematics. NCTM therefore pushes teachers to move beyond the college and career readiness response and establish high school mathematics as an opportunity to expand professional opportunities and to create a clear pathway to understand and critique the world around them.31 This call challenges high school mathematics teachers to step back from traditional approaches that focus solely on the abstract and make room for analyzing what’s going on in the world. By this very assertion, NCTM endorses the use of mathematics as a lens through which students can understand and interpret the racial, gender, and income inequalities they experience or see in the news.
Mathematics education has played an important role in developing “national economic and defense interests” since World War II.32 Careers involving science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) are growing at a faster rate than almost all other fields and there is currently a severe shortage of graduates in these fields. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, between 2009 and 2015, STEM-related jobs grew 10.5 percent compared to non-STEM jobs, which grew at half the pace at 5.2 percent.33 Simple economic theory of supply and demand reveals that the salaries for STEM careers are rising faster than in almost any other field.34 In fact, ninety-three out of one hundred STEM occupations had average wages greater than the national average.35 Thus, increasing access for students of color to these fields is one of the surest ways to close gender and raced-based wage gaps.
The push to use mathematics as a way to critique the world around you, however, extends beyond the call to prepare students for STEM careers. While students should be able to use high school mathematics to explain scientific phenomena, technological advancements, and other STEM related connections, students should also be encouraged to use mathematics to critique social and political systems. This encouragement allows students to develop skills to better navigate statements made in the news, by politicians, or by public interest groups. Mathematics empowers students to understand “their role as members of our democratic society, … to actively engage in their communities, and ... to appreciate their potential power to challenge injustices and contribute to societal improvement.”36