News articles perennially bemoan indications of low math achievement among U.S. students, especially students of color. But given the way math education is designed, including the very requirements students are expected to meet, such outcomes shouldn’t surprise us. If anything, traditional math pathways appear structured to winnow students out, effectively validating the idea that only a few are “math worthy.”
Math is unrivaled in its use to limit further opportunity. Only in math, for example, is an accelerated pace through high school needed to reach an Advanced Placement (AP) course. And though pre-calculus is considered a college-level course at most universities, students who pass it in high school rarely receive college credit. In California nearly half of community college students who succeed in precalculus have been required to take remedial algebra, even if they’re pursuing fields that don’t require algebra.
To be sure, some of these gatekeeping norms have begun to shift. Across the country, two- and four-year colleges have begun de-emphasizing or eliminating placement tests that used to sentence hundreds of thousands of students to remedial math. Instead, these colleges are relying more and more on students’ high school records, which have been shown to be better measures of students’ ability to pass college math courses. And, increasingly, for students who aren’t majoring in fields requiring calculus, colleges are offering rigorous options that are more relevant to their majors, like statistics, data science, and quantitative reasoning.
However, the effectiveness of these changes will be limited unless we overturn old ways of thinking about math that affect students as early as kindergarten. Such thinking contributes to poor educational outcomes, such as the 75 percent of high school students considered below proficient in math. Equally concerning is the dread that math class provokes in too many students: Surveys have shown that a majority of the U.S. population dislikes and fears mathematics.
“When students get the idea they cannot do math, they often maintain a negative relationship with mathematics throughout the rest of their lives,” writes Jo Boaler, a Stanford University math education expert.
This isn’t fair to students who miss out on the quantitative literacy that is important in school, at work, and in other aspects of life. It’s not even fair to math: The point of mathematics is not to erect obstacles to academic success. The purpose and promise of math, according to the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM), is to help students “expand professional opportunity, understand and critique the world, and experience wonder, joy, and beauty.”
Unfortunately, common practices can distort this purpose. As I say in my new report, The Mathematics of Opportunity, the architecture of math opportunity is “undergirded by misconceptions about math learning, scaffolded by existing educational inequities and stereotypes, and reinforced by math’s role as a marker or pedigree that confers access to opportunities.”
Too many students are given the message that they just aren’t “math people.” Plus, an overemphasis on speedy and correct answers can accentuate students’ fear of embarrassment and interfere with their learning to think mathematically and hone their reasoning abilities.
Such misconceptions exacerbate inequities that already exist — like poorly-resourced schools, differential access to good teaching, and the effects of racial bias and stereotypes. To top it all off, math often functions to confer a sort of pedigree, opening and closing doors to educational opportunity in ways that effectively preserve the position of individuals who already enjoy privilege.
Designing a new architecture of math opportunity is a multidimensional effort that needs new approaches to math content, instruction, assessment, as well as the readiness policies that determine access to advancement. All of these need to be organized to prepare students for future success rather than to ration opportunity. They must be grounded in the assumption that all students can learn math. And they should be aligned across educational systems, so that disjunctures don’t arbitrarily stop students in their educational tracks, and bolster those assumptions.
Changing the status quo won’t be easy: Current assumptions about math are deeply embedded in our culture. And responsibility for changing them is spread across K-12 and postsecondary institutions and diffused among instructors, administrators, and policy leaders.
New policies and practices emerging in postsecondary education — including evidence-based placement and diversified math pathways — are steps in the right direction. So are efforts in K-12 to make instruction and assessment more evidence-based and equitable.
Whatever their future aspirations, all students deserve the chance to benefit from mathematics. And math deserves a chance to achieve its purpose.