Equity in the math classroom is a fundamental issue to address. Within the math classrooms in which I teach, students are majority students of color, therefore ensuring that the teaching design serves those students is paramount. One of the core tenets of Critical Race Theory (CRT) is that racism is so embedded in the culture as to be difficult to see. Racism is embedded in the practice of mathematics so as to be almost invisible. American mathematical university departments, curriculum design experts and mathematics educators, will assert that the study of math is ability-based, neutral and colorblind. However, Danny Martin describes in his paper “Researching Race in Mathematics Education “this structure is clearly “a highly racialized (and gendered) space that normalizes and privileges Whiteness (and maleness) and influences societal beliefs about who can and cannot do mathematics.” He continues, “Designing mathematics classroom practices that promote the development of positive racial and mathematical identities and that situate the learning of mathematics in the social (and racial) realities confronting students should be goals for all mathematics teachers.”4 In order to provide high quality math education, my work requires me to address the effects of this racialized system.
The case for more equitable math instruction has been made exhaustively through scores of papers and books that examine the importance and opportunity costs associated with changing the instructional and learning outcomes in mathematics for students of color. The “achievement gap” is a predominant theme in mathematics education, driving studies, legislation, teacher training and curricular resource developments. However, the attention paid to this comparison of non-white students to white students, called the “achievement gap” does so in a manner that frames the disparities as race-effects rather than as the result of racism in the education and assessments systems that students are operating within. Despite the years of scholarship around the racialized education system and the standardized testing industry, the focus remains a deficit focus. Instead of working against the injustices of SATs and punitive policies such as No Child Left Behind, the focus of this relentless measurement reinforces white dominance and centrality. As Larnell, Bullock and Jett state:”Whether inside or outside of school, mathematics is political. Mathematics teaching and learning are certainly political acts connected to the preservation of privilege, the maintenance of oppression, and the capacity to see both clearly.”5
Educational statistics reinforce the deficit view of non-white students in mathematics, leading to lowered expectations among teachers of these students and stereotype threat among the students themselves. Mathematical achievement is used as a filter or gatekeeper for upper level courses as well as college and career opportunities. This is an accepted and normalized part of K-12 tracking and promotions and college entrance criteria. This structure is also clearly part of what CRT describes as a way that societal racism works to maintain white supremacy. Colorblindness argues that our educational system is desegregated and equal in opportunity for all. Standardized testing in support of federal programs such as NCLB and Race to the top, are designed to measure, compare and ferret out individual “failing schools.” Yet insufficient attention is paid to the embedded racism of these comparisons and the testing models. This approach to creating equity across the schools has not succeeded in changing the dynamics that the approach states as its goal despite decades of efforts and the proportion of “failing schools” has not changed significantly.
A constructivist CRT approach to education is described by Marvin Lynn in his paper Toward a Critical Race Pedagogy. Within this work, he interviewed several African American education practitioners who were committed to an activist and justice focused pedagogy; what he calls a “liberatory pedagogy”. Based interviews with these teachers, Lynn proposes 4 components of this pedagogy: 1) teaching children the importance of their culture, 2) encouraging classroom dialogue, 3) engaging in self- affirmation with students and 4) being active in resisting dominant practices that promote the white power structure.6
In upper high school mathematics it is often hard to integrate mathematical concepts into areas of concern and interest for the students in a particular classroom. It can be a challenge for a teacher of mathematics to find relevant social justice topics as examples of mathematical functions without careful planning. The focus of much of the policy around math education reflects a challenging tension between achievement and engagement. This tension is explored by Larnell, Bullock and Jett, in their paper Rethinking teaching and learning for Social Justice from a Critical Race Perspective. They describe a “critical mathematical literacy”7 approach which focuses on students changing to a positive view of mathematics through engaging in writing and reading of the world through mathematics. This approach emphasizes positive engagement over achieving a high percentage of content objectives. This is contrasted with the approach that centralizes achievement in math as a civil right, and focuses on using mathematics as a route to changing the life trajectories of the students.
Tonya Gau Bartell, in her study. Learning to Teach Mathematics for Social Justice: Negotiating Social Justice and Mathematical Goals. Describes the struggle to integrate social justice goals and mathematical content. She concludes that ongoing professional development in social justice is crucial for teachers of mathematics, as well as access to relevant data for teaching these topics. She observed teacher challenges in integrating the two pedagogical goals and suggested that rather than lesson focused changes, the shifts in teaching for social justice may better be viewed as yearlong integration.8
Steps to Increase Equity in the Curriculum
The dominant approach in math curriculum is to “cover the curriculum” and is measured by students being able to solve sample problems within a selection of the approximately 190 common core content standards at the high school level. If using the study of mathematics as a social justice tool, then covering as much of the curriculum as possible is a goal. If students achieve the content standards of the common core at a high level, it follows that college and career options will open up to them. This is somewhat problematic as it assumes that the college and career landscape is truly ability based and neutral. It also presents a time constraint in engaging students in deep mathematical problem solving and thinking. There is mention of the need for students to work persistently and independently at solving unique problems, however, the time pressure for students and teachers to cover the breadth of the curriculum is enormous. The coverage of topics leaves little time and space for conversation and engagement in authentic and relevant work.
Focusing the curriculum on the standards of practice is a way to build a student-centered and engaged classroom that provides high quality mathematics. It is as important as following a complete progression in the content standards. It is important because it raises expectations for the classroom by asking students to engage fully in the practice of math, rather than simply completing “content practice problems.” Seeking input from students throughout the year using conversation, investigation and reflection can strengthen the connection that students make to higher level mathematics and reinforce their relationship to doing math. Providing the opportunity for students to model with mathematics, based on problems within the context of their lives makes the practice deep and relevant.
I believe that the teaching of statistics itself provides opportunities for equity. Statistics is naturally accessible and authentic. Data can be collected from almost any area of interest. Measurement is one of the most concrete entry points into mathematics and it builds natural curiosity. Measuring something extends our understanding and builds our interest in the world around us. It only takes one measurement to realize that you might want to compare it to another and that builds a foundation for mathematical modeling. Students can build confidence in analyzing quantitative information by building their own understanding of a topic from the ground up. This makes statistics a great equalizer. Students can create a quantitative model of their ideas and world. Creating quantitative models and learning to verbalize the key features of these models is a very important piece of mathematical development for students that is equally important to the traditional canon of high school algebra and geometry. The dominant framework for high school mathematics often ignores statistics as it does not fit the algebraic pathway to calculus, however many more college students will take statistics than calculus.
The book Choosing to See: a Framework for Equity in the Mathematics Classroom9 outlines a teaching protocol ICUCARE. This protocol is the work of Pamela Seda and Kendall Brown, two leading practitioners and scholars in equitable math education. The protocol is an acronym to assist teachers as well as students to ensure equity considerations are forefront in the planning and execution of instruction Seda and Brown’s work puts CRT into practice with the ICUCARE protocol. The practices promoted by these scholars puts a focus on student-centered classrooms that encourage dialogue between students, that draw from and affirm knowledge bases within students and their home communities, that encourage and affirm mathematical process and reasoning and that interrogate the dominant myths and cultural messaging within the content area. I have chosen to use the guidance of the ICUCARE protocol in planning the unit. The protocol can help guide my work in equity pedagogy. The purpose of pedagogy and process is “ not to control what participants feel”, as Milton Reynolds says in Shifting Frames, but to “create a context or a container in which the participants will be allowed to access a broader range of emotions in the process of learning” “Ultimately, the goal is for them to construct knowledge together.”10 I want to utilize this container to allow for students to construct knowledge in the classroom together, while ensuring that I am providing students access to equitable mathematics. In doing so, the hope is that students will build their interest and expertise as actual practitioners rather than as those who try to measure up.