Mathematics education outcomes in the United States have been uneven for decades. Students in the top 10 percent socioeconomically tend to be about four grades ahead of students in the bottom 10 percent—a statistic that has persisted for 50 years.

To promote equity, policymakers and educators often focus on raising test scores and grades and making advanced courses more widely available. Through this lens, equity means that all students achieve similar grades and progress at similar levels of math.

With more than three decades of experience as a researcher, mathematics teacher, and teacher educator, I advocate for expanding what equity means in mathematics education. I believe policymakers and educators should focus less on test scores and grades and more on developing students’ confidence and ability to use math to make smart personal and professional decisions. This is mathematical power – and true equity.

## What is “fairness” in mathematics?

To understand the limits of thinking about equity only in terms of academic achievement, consider a student I interviewed in her first year of college.

Jasmine took Algebra 1 in 9th grade, followed by an online summer geometry course. This set her on a path to study calculus during her senior year in an AP class in which she earned an A. She graduated high school in the top 20% of her class and went to a highly selective liberal arts college . Now in her first year, she plans to study psychology.

Has Jasmine received a fair math education? From the perspective of fairness as an achievement, yes. But let’s take a closer look.

Jasmine experienced anxiety in her math classes during her junior and senior years in high school. Despite her high grades, she found herself “in a bit of a panic” when faced with situations that required mathematical analysis. This included choosing the best loan options.

In college, Jasmine’s major stats were demanding. Her guidance counselor and family encouraged her to take calculus over statistics in high school because calculus “looked better” for college applications. She now wishes she had studied statistics as a basis for her major and for her usefulness outside of school. In her psychology classes, statistical knowledge helps her better understand the landscape of disorders and ask questions like, “How does gender influence this disorder?”

These results suggest that Jasmine did not receive a fair education in mathematics because she did not develop her mathematical strength. Mathematical power is the knowledge and confidence to use mathematics to inform decisions and navigate the demands of everyday life, whether personal, professional or civic. A fair education would help her develop the confidence to use mathematics to make decisions in her personal life and to achieve her professional goals. Jasmine deserved more from her math education.

## The prevalence of inequitable mathematics education

Experiences like Jasmine’s are unfortunately common. According to a large-scale study, only 37% of US adults have math skills that are useful for making routine financial and medical decisions.

A report by the National Council on Education and the Economy found that courses for nine common majors, including nursing, required relatively few math subjects taught in most high schools. A recent study found that teachers and parents perceive mathematics education as “disengaging, outdated and disconnected from the real world”.

Looking at student experiences, national survey results show that high proportions of students experience anxiety about maths, low levels of confidence in maths, or both. Students from historically marginalized groups experience this anxiety at higher rates than their peers. This can frustrate their post-secondary pursuits and negatively affect their lives.

## How to make mathematics education more equitable

In 2023, we collaborated with other educators from Connecticut’s mathematics education professional associations to create a position statement. The position statement, which was approved by the Connecticut State Board of Education, outlines three commitments to transform mathematics education.

**1. Promote positive math identities**: The first commitment is to promote positive mathematical identities, which include students’ confidence level and beliefs about mathematics and their ability to learn it. Many students have a very negative relationship with mathematics. This commitment is especially important for students of color and language learners to counter the impact of stereotypes about who can succeed in math.

There are a growing number of materials to help teachers and schools promote positive mathematical identities. For example, writing a math autobiography can help students see the role of math in their lives. They can also reflect on their identity as a ‘mathematics person’. Teachers should also recognize students’ strengths and encourage them to share their own ideas as a way of empowering them.

**2. Modernize the mathematical content**: The second commitment is to modernize the math content that school districts provide to students. For example, a high school math track for students interested in health professions might include algebra, math for health professionals, and advanced statistics. With these skills, students will be better prepared to calculate drug doses, communicate results and risk factors to patients, interpret reports and research, and detect potentially life-threatening errors.

**3. Align state policies and requirements:** The third commitment is to align state policies and school districts in their definition of math proficiency and the requirements for achieving it. In 2018, for example, eight states had an insufficient high school graduation requirement in mathematics for admission to public universities in the same state. Other states’ requirements exceed admission requirements. Aligning state and district definitions of math proficiency eliminates confusion for students and removes unnecessary barriers.

## What’s next?

As long as educators and policymakers focus solely on equalizing test scores and enrolling in advanced courses, I believe true equity will remain elusive. Mathematical power—the ability and confidence to use math to make smart personal and professional decisions—must be the goal.

No amount of tweaking the American math education system will immediately lead to students gaining math power. But by focusing on students’ identities and designing math courses that align with their careers and life goals, I believe schools, universities, and state leaders can create a more expansive and equitable math education system.

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**Citation**: Real equity in math education means more than good grades and test scores (2024, July 31) Retrieved July 31, 2024, from https://phys.org/news/2024-07-real-equity-math- good-grades. html

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