By Mette Schwartz, the Regional Instructional Coach for the Eastern Region
The United States has a strained relationship with mathematics. In many settings it is regarded as socially acceptable to say things like “I can’t do math” or “I was never good at math.” This disconnect has allowed generations of students and teachers to live with math illiteracy. As a nation we want all children to succeed in school, but too often the student who is “good at math” is the exception rather than the rule. And almost never is that student from a poor urban school. The competent math student is rarely a person of color. While the achievement gap between students based on socioeconomic status and ethnicity exists in all subject areas, it is particularly prevalent in mathematics.
At City Year, we recognize the stark inequities of access to mathematics education that have existed for decades. Former civil rights leader, Robert Moses, was among the first to bring attention to the issue, stating in his 2001 book Radical Equations:
‘So algebra, once solely in place as the gatekeeper for higher math and the priesthood who gained access to it, now is the gatekeeper for citizenship; and people who don't have it are like the people who couldn't read and write in the industrial age.’
Algebra as the Gatekeeper
Access to and readiness for algebra has long been recognized as the litmus test for success in higher mathematics and science courses. Students who can successfully make the transition from the more concrete elementary and middle school mathematics concepts to the more abstract concepts associated with algebra I and beyond will have access to, and succeed in courses that other students will not.
The Common Core Standards for Mathematics (CCSSM) emphasize the importance of algebraic thinking from kindergarten onward. Unfortunately, a generation of teachers have not been provided adequate support to effectively implement the standards. Sadly, the teachers that need the most support, those in high-poverty school districts,, are the least likely to get it.Economically disadvantaged and minority students continue to lag behind their higher-income and white peers when it comes to access to high-quality algebra instruction. A 2015 study in Educational Researcher (which can be accessed here) found a high correlation between the exposure to mathematics and higher level mathematics and socio-economic status.
Students in high-poverty districts are often exposed to less rigorous content. In fact, weak math instruction is so common in struggling districts that their instructional content has more in common with low-income districts in different states than they do with more affluent districts in the same state.”
Unsurprisingly, black 7th and 8th graders lag significantly behind their white peers in enrolling in and passing Algebra I, according to US News and World Report, 1/28/15. In fact, Professor William H. Schmidt, Distinguished Professor at Michigan State University maintains that courses entitled ‘Algebra I’ vary tremendously in terms of content and expectations. The larger inequities of our educational system have come home to roost in the mathematics classroom.
How We Can Do Better
As an organization committed to achieving social justice through equity in education, City Year actively addresses this issue every day. to work on this issue. While systemic change happens slowly, City Year AmeriCorps members represent “boots on the ground” to help drive this change. One of the most important roles for AmeriCorps members serving in schools is to model lifelong learning. To this end, City Year AmeriCorps members work closely with students to develop social-emotional skills that support success in the classroom, including developing a growth mindset. By maintaining high expectations for all students, our Corps members are helping students understand that, especially in mathematics, “smart is not something you are, smart is something you get.”