January 24, 2024
Rethinking Math

More ‘Real Math,’ More Class Choices, Students Say. We Agree.

Pamela Burdman
More ‘Real Math,’ More Class Choices, Students Say. We Agree.

An essential voice in the debate over how math should be taught is getting louder. The students themselves are increasingly being invited to participate in shaping the future of mathematics instruction.

We should all be listening to their candid advice:

“Make math more connected to the real world. Do this with all levels of math.”

“In high school, students should have the choice of extending their math career as it relates to their interested future field.”

“I think one way to improve is by doing more hands-on work. I feel like all we do is take notes and do tests.”

These suggestions were a few of the many gathered for Making Sense of Learning Math: Insights From the Student Experience, a new report from the nonprofit YouthTruth

Seventy percent of students surveyed said they could be good at math if they worked hard at it. But when the survey drills down into their experiences and how they relate to their math coursework, their responses change to focus on what they need but aren’t getting.

Just 47 percent of students surveyed said they often work on interesting problems in math class, while 23 percent said they rarely or never get that opportunity. Only 46 percent said they feel comfortable asking questions in math class if they do not understand. 

The report points out that students think of math lessons in two ways. There’s “student,” or “education,” math—long the typical fare in many math classes—which focuses on formulas and procedures. 

And there’s what they call “real” math skills, which empower students to pursue their individualized education and career goals. “Real” math also includes math needed in everyday life that isn’t often taught in the classroom, such as financial and investing skills.

“Not knowing how to do taxes is frustrating, but at least I know algebra,” quipped one student who participated in a workshop for the report.

These perspectives closely match what parents and teachers said in a survey conducted last year by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. It found that math education was seen as “unengaging, outdated, and disconnected from the real world.” The solution? “Make math education more relevant and engaging so that more students will succeed in math and, thus, later in life.”

Similarly, students are increasingly expecting more from their mathematics courses and looking for more opportunities to succeed, and rightfully so. 

Unfortunately, too many are still held back by antiquated and hierarchical systems, especially Black and Latinx math students and those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds.

High-achieving Black and Latinx students are less likely to move on to advanced math courses than their White, more affluent peers, according to Opportunities Denied: High Achieving Black and Latino Students Lack Access to Advanced Math, a 2023 report from Just Equations and The Education Trust. 

Underserved students who did get to take advanced math courses more often reported having teachers who focused on the students’ understanding of and interest in math, compared with high-achieving students who did not have access to those courses.

High school math students have also reported a serious lack of information and resources when it comes to knowing which courses make them attractive to college admissions offices and how to get into those courses.

Some attended schools that didn’t even offer the advanced math courses they felt they needed.

“When I was applying for college, it felt that schools were only looking for AP scores. I mean AP math classes. But my school that I went to didn’t have those,” said one student quoted in Just Equations’ 2023 report Integral Voices: Examining Math Experiences of Underrepresented Students.

That report found major disparities and information gaps that students struggled with while navigating their high school math coursetaking. That misinformation—or lack of information—had significant consequences for their high school and college math placements. 

And all too often it’s Black and Latinx students, as well as low-income students, who report the most disparities in resources and access.

Forty percent of Latinx students surveyed in Integral Voices said access to information was their biggest barrier in applying to college, compared with 18 percent of White students. And more than a third of Black respondents reported they weren’t recommended for any advanced math classes. 

Multiple studies and surveys have several commonalities about the student math experience. Too many students aren’t getting the type of instruction or access to the courses they need to succeed. Racial and socioeconomic disparities persist, especially in math, shutting out smart, dedicated students from the possibility of STEM degrees or careers—or, in some cases, completing college at all.

We need their powerful voices to fuel the instructional updates and policy changes desperately needed to ensure the future of mathematics for the next generation.

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