5 Ways to Create an Equitable Math Classroom

By Lanette Trowery and Margaret Bowman

McGraw Hill
Inspired Ideas


Educational equity has been, and continues to be, an essential foundation in our nation’s schools and classrooms — and is critical in math instruction.

Geneva Gay (1988), in her work on designing relevant curricula for diverse learners, posits that a focus on the equitable outputs should lead the development and selection of the inputs, or materials and practices, used in classrooms:

“…the real focus of equity is not sameness of content for all students, but equivalency of effect potential, quality status, and significance of learning opportunities” (p. 329).

From a mathematics perspective, the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics states:

“Acknowledging and addressing factors that contribute to differential outcomes among groups of students is critical to ensuring that all students routinely have opportunities to experience high-quality mathematics instruction, learn challenging mathematics content, and receive the support necessary to be successful” (NCTM, 2020).

An equitable classroom is one where all students are supported to learn rigorous academics and where teachers leverage the materials and practices needed to support positive academic outcomes for all students.

Equity in practice is very complicated, and there’s so much we still need to learn about reaching and empowering every learner — but in the meantime, here’s what the research tells us are the most important factors in creating equitable math classrooms, starting with some core pedagogical principles that are applicable across all disciplines:

Practice culturally responsive teaching

Research on culturally relevant, responsive, and sustaining pedagogies aligns with how equitable teaching and learning experiences are defined. Geneva Gay (1988) introduced culturally responsive teaching, which focuses on teacher practice and ways to make learning more relevant and effective for all students. She put forth a set of dimensions that guide teaching:

  • Being socially and academically empowering;
  • Setting high expectations for all students;
  • Engaging in multidimensional knowledge building, contributions, and perspectives;
  • Validating all students’ cultures through diverse instructional strategies and materials;
  • Being socially, emotionally, and politically comprehensive in educating the whole child;
  • Using students’ strengths to drive instruction; and
  • Being thoughtful and critical about how educational practices and ideals may form barriers to student success (Gay, 2010).

Adopt culturally relevant pedagogy

Culturally relevant pedagogy, originally described by Gloria Ladson Billings, steps back from teaching practices and focuses more broadly on three key concepts or tenets of a classroom:

Academic achievement, in which teachers expect, develop, and reinforce students’ academic excellence;

Cultural competence, in which students maintain their cultural integrity alongside academic excellence; and

Critical consciousness, in which students are expected to critically engage with the world around them (Ladson-Billings, 1995).

Practice culturally sustaining pedagogy

Finally, Paris (2012) argues that culturally responsive or relevant pedagogies may not go far enough in the efforts to push schools to create spaces that are affirming and supportive of all students. Paris maintains that culturally sustaining pedagogies address the need in our pluralistic society to think about not only how to make instruction relevant and responsive, but also how to preserve, celebrate, share, and sustain the diverse cultures that our students bring to the learning experience.

Connecting research on culturally responsive, relevant, and sustaining pedagogies with research on educational equity provides a framework for building equitable classrooms. Research has helped uncover several factors that support classroom equity and echo the tenets of culturally responsive and sustaining practices:

  • Supporting high academic expectations for all students;
  • A socially and emotionally positive and safe school and classroom climate;
  • Authentic and rigorous tasks;
  • Inclusive, relevant, and meaningful content;
  • Open and accepting communication;
  • Drawing from students’ strengths, knowledge, culture, and competence;
  • Critically and socially aware inquiry practices; and
  • Strong teaching and teacher professional support for equity and inclusion.

(Aronson & Laughter, 2016; Gay, 2010; Krasnoff, 2016; Ladson-Billings, 2006; Morrison, Robbins, & Rose, 2008; NYSED, 2019; Saphier, 2017; Snyder, Trowery & McGrath, 2019; Waddell, 2014).

Differentiate to reach every student with rigorous math instruction

In the studies that focused on equitable teaching in mathematics classrooms, the findings are consistent with the work on educational equity as a whole (Brenner, 1998; Bonner, 2009; Gutstein, Lipman, Hernandez, & de los Reyes, 1997; Matthews, 2003; Nasir, 2002; Osisioma, Kiluva-ndunda, & Van Sickle, 2008; Tate, 1995).

💡 Research Spotlight: Boaler and Staples (2008) conducted a longitudinal study comparing how equitable teaching impacted students’ math achievement in three high schools. In the school where the teachers taught mixed-level math classes, students were provided additional time to work together and grapple with more conceptually focused problems. Despite having begun the study with pre-test scores far below the comparison schools, students in this school outperformed the others in years 2 and 3 on post-test measures of math achievement. The researchers contend that because the focus school held high expectations for students; presented all students with a common, rigorous curriculum to support their learning; offered learning supports to struggling students; and enacted a high level of challenge in classroom tasks, inequalities in teaching practices were reduced, thus increasing students’ math achievement levels (p. 635).

Make learning relevant to students’ lived experiences

Other findings in the research on equitable and culturally relevant mathematics teaching demonstrate how teachers make effective connections to students’ lives and communities with real-world applications of mathematics (Ensign, 2003; Enyedy & Mukhopadhyay, 2007; Gutstein, Lipman, Hernandez, de los Reyes, 1997; Rosa & Orey, 2010; Tate, 1995).

Gutierrez (2009) posits that to move toward equitable mathematics teaching, teachers must know their students through a variety of lenses — academically, socially, personally — without essentializing who they are.

💡 Research Spotlight: In a study examining the effects of specific culturally relevant teaching practices on high school students’ mathematics achievement, Langlie (2008) found that time teachers spent with students getting to know them outside of formal teaching and teachers who employed practices that encouraged students to see and use math as part of daily life were both factors that had statistically significant, positive effects on students’ mathematics achievement. In creating equitable classrooms where all students have opportunities to learn math at high levels, the research demonstrates the influence classroom culture has on the math knowledge being shared with students as well as the impact classroom culture has on how math knowledge is learned by students (Waddell, 2014).

What does this look like in a curriculum?

Incorporating all of these elements into instruction is easier said than done — which is why resources for teaching and learning should be created to make math more equitable.

Our K-12 math program, Reveal Math, supports the development of equitable math classrooms through the variety of resources and practices embedded into the program.

For example, equitable math programs…

  • Contribute to a growth mindset in students. Reveal Math places an emphasis on creating a positive and productive classroom culture where all students have common access to rigorous instruction while supporting the student’s development of growth mindset and a positive math identity. The Math Is… Unit, which is the first unit in each grade level, focuses on helping students see themselves as “doers of mathematics.” Students develop thinking habits that are integral to mathematical problem-solving and co-create classroom norms that lead to a mutually supportive and productive learning environment.
  • Prioritize social and emotional learning. In Reveal Math, SEL objectives are integrated within every lesson, allowing teachers to support the whole child within the math classroom and understand who their students are and what skills and habits they bring to the classroom.
  • Are designed to ensure all students will have access to rigorous instruction. Every lesson in Reveal Math highlights the Focus, Coherence, and Rigor of the content and sets the stage for establishing high academic expectations, a main tenet in culturally relevant pedagogy (Ladson-Billings, 1995). The Be Curious activity found in each lesson uses sense-making routines to engage students in a low floor, high ceiling discussion, creating an equitable classroom culture where all ideas are welcome and respected.

There’s a great deal more that you should expect from an equitable program — including differentiated resources, supports for English Learners, opportunities for reflection, and flexible modalities. To read more about how those elements are integrated into Reveal Math, and to find additional research on educational equity in the math classroom, read the full brief, A Research Summary of Program-Focused Outcomes:

About the Authors

Lanette Trowery, Ph.D. is the Senior Director of the McGraw Hill Learning Research and Strategy Team.

Lanette was in public education for more than 25 years, working as a university professor, site-based mathematics coach, elementary and middle school teacher, mathematics consultant, and a professional learning consultant, before coming to McGraw Hill in 2014. She earned her Master’s and Doctorate from the University of Pennsylvania.

Lanette’s team, Learning Research and Strategy, serves as the center of excellence for teaching and learning best practices. Her team conducts market, effectiveness, and efficacy research into products to provide insights and recommendations to product development. They collaborate across internal teams, external experts, and customers to establish guiding principles and frameworks to move from theory to practice.

Margaret Bowman is an Academic Designer in the Mathematics Department at McGraw Hill. Margaret earned her Bachelor of Science in Education from Ashland University with a teaching license in Middle Grades Education, and her Master of Education from Tiffin University. She was a middle school Math and Language Arts teacher for six years before joining the middle school team at McGraw Hill in 2012, writing and designing print and digital curriculum.

Margaret is also a Research Associate in the Research Laboratory for Digital Learning at The Ohio State University. She is nearing completion of a PhD in Educational Studies with an emphasis in Learning Technologies. Her past research and journal publications have focused on teachers’ value for using technology in the classroom and technology’s impact on student learning. Her current research examines how students’ use of technology can improve the value they have for mathematics and their expectations that they can succeed.


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