132: Mathematics & the Path to Equity





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The Elitist Structure of Mathematics
  • Elitist views place math as subject harder than other subjects that can only be accessed by a select few.
  • Math is taught as a performance subject that weeds out people with & without the math gene
  • Some people enjoy sorting mechanism of math because they have been sorted into the side of the limited Have’s
  • Some people enjoy thinking that their math ability is due to genetic superiority
  • Sometimes math teachers feel like they are superior to teachers who teach other subjects
    • these same teachers may feel justified in failing many students because they feel like they are the guardians of math success and only stars can move to higher levels
  • Some university math departments lower grades of students who display hard work habits such as attending office hours
The Myth of the Mathematically Gifted Child
  • Even math geniuses had to work hard to be able to produce relevant work
  • “Gifted” status awarded to students who can do things quickly, not necessarily kids who work hard and are persistent
    • Myth of genetic difference can make “gifted” students intellectually brittle because they may end of devoted a lot of energy to protecting their gifted identities
  • Valuing “giftedness” over hard work may cause:
    • high achievers to hide or underemphasize the effort they exerted to achieve
    • hard workers to feel like imposters because they had to work hard to achieve
  • Elitist math views + stereotypes of who can be good at math create large equity gaps in math
    • in 2014 – 73% math doctorates were male, 94% were white or Asian
    • the more a field values giftedness, the less likely are women and minorities to enter the field
  • Rushing students to higher levels of math can dilute the depth at which they understand fundamental concepts and processes
    • could lead to students who are procedurally fast, but can’t explain rationale for procedures
Equitable Strategies
  1. Offer all students high-level content.  
  2. Work to change ideas about who can do mathematics.
  3. Encourage students to think deeply about mathematics.
    • The desire to think and understand deeply is more critical to math achievement than the ability to perform procedures quickly.
    • Include experiences that are
      • hands-on
      • project-based
      • tied to real life applications
      • allow for collaboration
  4. Teach students to work together.
    • Shared struggles make challenges less intimidating
    • Discussing math helps people make sense of it
  5. Give lots of encouragement to people who are normally left out (women and minorities).
    • Do not comfort kids by buying into their “I’m just not a math person” fixed mindsets
    • Anyone can perform poorer when they are on the under-side of a stereotype of performance
  6. Eliminate (or at least change the nature of) homework.
    • Homework spreads low income equity achievement gap because low income students have less time and less resources while completing homework
      • inequities are magnified when class starts with homework review
    • Instead of practice problems, offer reflection questions such as
      • what was the main idea learned today?
      • what is something you are struggling or have questions about?
      • how could lessons from today be applied in real life?
    • Instead of practice problems, offer inquiry problems that have students seek out examples of current concepts in their lives


Uncovering the elitist structures embedded into the structures of math curricula and the attitudes it promotes can help teachers be more aware of how to revise their practices to close equity gaps.  Equitable teaching practices have been shown to have a greater impact than minority role models.  This empowers any teacher to practice strategies that can close achievement gaps.


Preparation Steps
  • Research specific strategies related to equitable practices listed above.
  • Examine practices and attitudes critically to see if any are directly or indirectly elitist.
  • Develop strategies, visuals, and lesson plans that eliminate elitist views of math and replace them with growth mindset views of math.
Early Implementation Steps
  • Implement policies, visuals, scaffolding and assessments that combat elitist views of math and promote growth mindset views of math.
  • Teach students skills related to math achievement:
    • brainstorming
    • communicating
    • sense making
    • drawing to understand
    • reflecting
    • collaborating, etc
  • Use student feedback to fine tune policies, scaffolding and assessments
Advanced Implementation Steps
  • Assess students attitudes over time to see if their views of math and their place in it is changing over time
  • Research and implement strategies that set high expectations and also offer high levels of support to all math learners

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