# Developing Anti-Racist Curriculum and Pedagogy

## CONTENTS OF CURRICULUM UNIT 21.02.07

- Introduction and Rationale
- Background
- Defining Equity in the Math Classroom
- Addressing Structures that Perpetuate Racism
- Implementing Equitable Instruction
- Culturally Relevant Classroom Activities
- Examining and Re-Imagining the “Race-Neutral” Math Lesson
- Bibliography
- Appendix on Implementing District Standards
- Notes

### Unit Guide

## Eyes Wide Open: E(race)ing Color-Blindness in the Math Classroom

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## Addressing Structures that Perpetuate Racism

Addressing the systemic nature of racism can seem daunting for individual educators, but there are four structural barriers that educators and schools can directly influence, namely (1) student tracking, (2) teacher tracking, (3) instructional support, and (4) grading.

### Student Tracking

Tracking within mathematics is often seen as a race-neutral default option at most high schools. Tracking separates students into distinct subgroups based on perceived notions of a student’s ability. Tracking significantly restricts a student’s mobility within traditional high school course progressions and disproportionately regulates black and brown students to the lowest tracks where deficit mindsets are reinforced. Once in a low track, students often struggle to switch tracks due to opportunity gaps that result from content and standard differentials between tracks. Students in the highest track typically receive a three-tier math education, with a focus on procedural fluency, conceptual understanding, and application. In lower tracks, however, the foci on the latter two tiers are typically abandoned. Students in the lowest tracks are typically seen as lacking skills and understanding, without which authentic application is unachievable. Consequently, teachers focus on rote procedures and skip content deemed “too hard.”

Detracking is evidenced to lead to greater success for more students.^{37} Detracking a high school math program requires a re-envisioning of instruction, math courses, and the traditional progression. Schools cannot simply detrack and expect equity issues to disappear. High schools that successfully detrack use myriad teaching strategies to promote success, such as complex instruction (CI), as designed by Elizabeth Cohen and Rachel Lotan. Complex instruction emphasizes the importance of task design. Teachers generate inherently uncertain open-ended tasks that “force students to draw upon each other’s expertise and repertoire of problem-solving strategies.”^{38} Doing so helps students learn to approach problems from multiple perspectives, justify their reasoning, and communicate effectively.

While teachers may not be able to change the tracking structure within their school overnight, teachers may still have opportunities to affect meaningful change. By identifying and focusing on essential concepts within individual courses and from one course to the next in the tracked progression, educators can ensure that students subjugated to lower tracks develop the necessary understandings required to be successful in future classes and at various levels within the tracked system. Teachers can change the type of tasks they give students by raising expectations and providing multiple points of entry for students. Through continued effort, students can more fluidly switch between tracks until eventually tracking becomes unnecessary.

### Teacher Tracking

Teacher tracking is yet another supposedly race-neutral practice in which experienced teachers are often assigned upper-level courses like algebra 2, pre-calculus, and calculus while newer teachers are assigned lower-level courses like algebra 1 and geometry. Teacher tracking has an impact on both students and teachers. When analyzed in conjunction with student tracking, one study found that “marginalized students had access to less effective instruction than non-marginalized students, and that lack of access to high-quality instruction persisted over time.”^{39} Additionally, teacher tracking tends to result in greater new-teacher burnout, which when left unaddressed, results in increased rates of turnover. According to the Learning Policy Institute, between recruitment, hiring, and training, urban districts spend more than $20,000 on each new hire, an investment that does not pay off when teachers burnout quickly.^{40}

A simple solution to teacher tracking is to balance teaching loads more equally among new and experienced teachers, allowing all teachers to teach both lower and higher levels math courses. Doing so provides a number of benefits. First, it allows new and experienced teachers to more easily collaborate and to learn from one another. Second, it provides teachers with a broader understanding of the vertical alignment of classes. Third, it allows teachers to see the growth of students over multiple years, fostering a strength-based mindset of students.^{41} Finally, balanced teacher course loads foster a “collective sense of responsibility for all students.”^{42} Detracking teachers requires schools to invest in structured time for teachers to meet, to collaborate, and to discuss instructional practices.

### Instructional Supports

The manner in which schools organize and utilize instructional support for mathematics impacts equity. Some schools provide students with a math support class while others increase instructional time within a given course. Not all supports, however, lead to equally equitable outcomes. Schools that utilize two-year algebra courses cause students to fall further behind their peers while two-period algebra classes allot students just as much learning time without the negative effects. Regardless of which route a school chooses, targeted supports should focus on grade-level content and conceptual understanding instead of below-grade procedural skills. Support should occur within the context of the current grade-level content.

### Grading for Equity

Grading is perhaps the “race-neutral” practice for which teachers are most protective. Most teachers grade on a 0-100 point scale and grade everything from participation, homework, classwork, quizzes, and tests. These traditional grading practices, however, perpetuate whiteness in a variety of ways depending on how these grades are utilized. If grading is meant to serve as a numeric representation of student content mastery, then homework, classwork, group work, participation, citizenship, and the like should not be graded. Intermediate assignments like homework and classwork provide opportunities for students to practice in an effort to master concepts and skills. Giving students failing grades for unsuccessfully solving problems punishes students for not having already mastered these new concepts. This practice advantages students who participate in enrichment programs or whose families can hire tutors while disadvantaging students who have less free time or opportunities because they need to take care of siblings or work. Meanwhile, grading participation or citizenship reinforces a white ideology of appropriate behavior and bears no reflection on content mastery. Grading for anything beyond mastery inflates compliant students’ grades while deflating defiant students’ grades, which further feeds into inequitable student tracking practices.

Test grades become increasingly important indicators if other assignments are not graded. As in real life (driving tests, SATs, certification exams, etc.), students should be afforded multiple opportunities to prove mastery without consequence. Testing everyone simultaneously conveniences only the teacher and reinforces a fixed mindset about math ability among students and teachers. Students who are good at math should have no trouble passing the test. Test results identify who is smart at math and who is not, and then everyone moves on to the next topic. Equitable grading practices, however, ask students to examine and learn from their errors. Students should then be given the opportunity to re-test. Only the final score should be included in a student’s grade. Test retakes should not be averaged as this practice punishes students for not adhering to the teacher’s preconception of how long it should take to master a set of concepts and creates a diminished representation of what the student has actually learned.

Within this same vein, the traditional 0-100 grading structure provides a deflated outlook on what students have mastered by greatly skewing data in favor of what students have not mastered, further reinforcing the deficit mindset that plagues math education. Of the 101 point scale, 60 of the points define what a student has not mastered while 41 points spread over 4 different letter grades differentiate what a student has mastered. This breakdown is unrealistic in the real world. Even Advanced Placement exams don’t expect students to demonstrate mastery by scoring a 90% on the test. In fact, a 3 on an AP Calculus exam will earn some students college credit at most public universities. To earn a 3 on the exam, students only need to demonstrate about 40% mastery of all the concepts. A 5 (the highest score a student can earn) only requires students to demonstrate about 65% mastery and guarantees most students credit at a public university.

One possible alternative to the traditional grading scale is not a far stretch from what most high schools already do to provide students with a Grade Point Average (GPA). Joe Feldman recommends the use of a 0-4 scale with no intermediate grades (i.e. no decimals).^{43} This strategy assigns each letter grade a number, identical to that of a GPA. The point is not to have teachers just convert percentages to a 4 point scale, but rather for teachers to treat the scale more like a rubric. One sample grading policy had teachers identify what high school students should be able to do with the content. That was assigned a 3. To earn a 4, students had to go beyond that standard. A 2 meant the student was close to understanding, but not quite there. A 1 meant the student showed very little understanding. A 0 represented no clear understanding of concepts. This strategy requires teachers to reflect more deeply on the grading process of what it truly means to master a concept. It also requires teachers to consider the types of questions they are asking students since the focus is on understanding. Using this 0-4 scale accomplishes two things. First, it neutralizes the devastating impact of the zero. Second, Feldman asserts that the 0-4 scale more accurately depicts student mastery.^{44} Some critics argue that changing the traditional scale inflates grades and makes it easier for students to earn an A. But Feldman’s study showed that while the F and D rates declined, so did the A rate. A focus on mastery instead of compliance will always have this effect. Moreover, Feldman’s study found that course grades using the 0-4 scale more closely reflected standardized test scores, “indicating that the teacher’s assessment that a student mastered a standard was aligned with that same demonstration on the tests.”^{45}