Equity in Math - creating 21st Century Learners

Equity in Math - creating 21st Century Learners

July 8, 2020

Equity starts with curriculum that is geared towards 21st century learning.   I have been exposed to classrooms of all types;rural all white parochial school, diverse DODDs (Department of Defense Dependent Schools), Special Education teacher and a math specialist, in and out of regular ed classrooms in Title One, junior high and elementary, school allover the greater Seattle area.  I have had the opportunity to see a lot of different students and a lot of different teaching styles.  We teacher children of color, especially those in low income areas, completely different that we teach suburban, middle class students and here is how I believe we do it.  Teachers in schools with a large minority population often use a teaching style called direct instruction, this style of teaching is teacher led, very structured, very sequential.  Teacher demonstrates, students follow.  This teaching style was promoted with the idea of getting students ready for standardized tests.  

Our conceptualization of teaching to the test is characterized by classroom practices that emphasize remediation, skills-based instruction over critical and conceptual­oriented thinking, decreased use of rich curriculum materials,narrowed teacher flexibility in instructional design and decision making.The threat of sanctions looms if for teachers who do not meet externally ­generated performance standard.  While mastery of this lower­ level content is necessary, it often becomes the ceiling of the mathematics that students learn because it allows students to meet minimum standards for what counts as success.  Students in these school are inundated with worksheets, board work, and test ­taking strategies.  

School districts serving large numbers of African American students often implement remedial strategies that emphasize repetition, drill, right­ answer thinking. They often focus on memorization and rote learning, out ­of­ context mathematical computations, and test ­taking strategies.  This type of instruction leaves African American students disengaged and viewing mathematics as irrelevant and decontextualized from their everyday experiences.  This then becomes a double-edged sword as throughout their schooling experiences, African American students are often denied access to higher-level mathematics and advanced programs because of their performance on standardized tests.  Schools with predominate African American students often do not offer high level mathematic classes settling instead for remedial mathematics due to low test scores.

Ten years ago, NEA (National Education Association) set up 21st Century Students for a Global Society.  In it they emphasized the “Four Cs”; critical thinking, communication, collaboration and creativity, skills that businesses are looking for in new hires.  Suburban and higher preforming schools took these skills to heart and incorporated them into all their school subjects, particularly in math.  Students in these classrooms were given real world math problems and grouped together to discuss the math concepts and come up with solutions that they would then share with the whole class.  This same is not happening in our predominately minority schools and we need to change that.  

Here are some suggestions on getting out of direct instruction and into 21st Century Learning:

Make learning math facts fluency systematic–

Work on master of one number combination at a time. For example, mastering the sum that makes 10, then 10 +/- 1 (9s and11s), move on to doubles (4 + 4) doubles +/-1. This video shows these strategies. The same can be done with multiplication,work on 2, 5 10 first, then onto 3s and 4s, see the patterns in 9s. Provide games that emphasize the specific fact strategy, this provides the repetition needed to gain mastery.  These games take only a few minutes to play and can be pulled out at any time in school or out of schools.  Math fact fluency is important,and playing games builds the confidence and mastery in the least amount of time.  


Allow students to play withmath.  

Not all students have game board,building blocks like Legos, dice or cards in their homes.  School is the first place where they experience games as a form of learning.  Classrooms need materials like dice, cards, game board, pattern blocks, building blocks.  Math lessons need to incorporate these tools and students need to be encouraged to use them.  MANGO Math provides manipulative matter in all their games.


Provide real world problems for students to solve in groups.  

Scholastics has inexpensive book series called MathMysteries Kids Can’t Resist by Martin Lee and Marcia Miller.  Try these out with your students.  Have a weekly math collaboration.   Strong problem-solving skills in math translates into strong problem-solving skills in social life.

Model positive math attitudes

Surprisingly not all people like math.  The phrase “I’m not a math person”is a common statement by parents, community members and teachers. Students who hear math isn’t important will believe that math isn’t important when in fact, math is the strongest indicator of student’s school success.  If a child does well in math, they are more likely to do well in all other subjects. Majority of minority students will never see a teacher that looks like them.  White educators in math need to show successful black mathematicians so students of color can see themselves in them.  


In the time of COVID it is important to take the stress out of math learning.  Games and collaboration take away the stress that many students get when given a worksheet or stuck in a computer program that will not allow them to advance.  It also allows for the socialness that so many of these children have missed.