October 29, 2019
Rethinking Math

Expanding Opportunity Through the Purpose of Math

Pamela Burdman
Expanding Opportunity Through the Purpose of Math

The purpose of math is not to make students miserable. It is not to instill fear in them. And it is definitely not to create a pecking order among students. The purpose of math education is to help students “expand professional opportunity; understand and critique the world; and experience joy, wonder, and beauty,” to quote the National Council of Teacher of Mathematics.

Just Equations was founded to ensure that mathematics education fulfills this purpose, rather than serving as a gatekeeper to stop students — particularly students of color and low-income students — in their educational tracks.

Recently we invited educators, advocates, and researchers to Berkeley to continue this work at our annual convening, The Mathematics of Opportunity: Designing for Equity.

“You are actually doing anti-racist and anti-sexist work by making sure our communities are not excluded, oppressed, and marginalized through practices and policies that are cloaked in the mantra of high standards, academic excellence and meritocracy,” Regina Stanback Stroud, the new Chancellor of the Peralta Community College District, told the crowd.

Newly designed postsecondary math pathways at the Peralta colleges, as well as other colleges and universities in California and nationally, are ensuring more students have access to rigorous and relevant quantitative reasoning preparation. They are helping to achieve — rather than violate — the purpose of math education.

At the convening, two students spoke with California Community Colleges Deputy Chancellor Daisy Gonzales about how these new pathways made a difference for them. Negative experiences in high school had led both of them to dread math class.

“I was actually punished for not understanding math,” recalled Rebecca Galicia, a mother of five who once dreamed of being a nurse but was dissuaded by the algebra requirements. The opportunity to take a statistics class with just-in-time support at College of Alameda turned everything around for Galicia, and allowed her to transfer to Mills College. After she graduates in 2020 with a degree in sociology and ethnic studies, she plans to pursue a master’s degree in social work.

She credits her experience at College of Alameda. “Without that, I wouldn’t be able to advocate for other students,” she said. “We use math every day, we just don’t realize it. Especially with social work, there’s a lot of statistics.” She is also using her experience to guide her daughter, now also a student at CoA.

Mariam Shamon of Cuyamaca College in the San Diego area took a different path. After failing a math course as a senior in high school, “I told myself no to STEM majors, obviously you’re bad at math.” But a corequisite statistics class similar to the one Galicia took changed her trajectory. Five math classes later, Shamon is on her way to getting a degree in civil engineering and says she loves math.

“I get into a groove of solving problems and I see the logic behind it,” she said.

Though both women attended colleges that were ahead of the curve in adopting the reforms, community colleges around California as well as California State University campuses are now implementing a trio of strategies to improve students’ math pathways:

  • diversifying math pathways beyond the traditional path to Calculus;
  • using evidence-based approaches such as high school grades to place students; and
  • offering co-requisites and other just-in-time strategies to support the majority of students in college-level math classes (instead of assigning them to remedial classes).

From the students’ perspective, though, the real keys to their success were the teachers who encouraged them and believed they could succeed. “My statistics teacher had this really positive attitude. She really thought I could do it,” said Mariam. “And that gave me the confidence that I can do it.”

And that attitudinal shift, noted Gonzales, is at the center of the reforms. “The real opportunity is about transforming our hearts to believe that our students have the capacity to succeed, that we are courageous enough to dismantle structures that have perpetuated power and inequality in our higher education and K-12 systems, and to provide students with resources and opportunities,” she said.

Gonzales’ own story illustrates that capacity to succeed. Growing up a foster youth, she also confronted discouragement during high school, when she and the other Latinx students were required to sit in the back of the classroom. The teacher told them that was because they would never go to college.

Like Galicia and Shamon, Gonzales proved them wrong, earning a PhD in sociology and becoming a lead analyst for the California budget, before joining the college system.

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