May 26, 2021
Rethinking Math

The Joyful Conspiracy and New Opportunities to Modernize Math

Pamela Burdman
The Joyful Conspiracy and New Opportunities to Modernize Math

My interest in redesigning math pathways dates back at least a dozen years. While working on improving student opportunities and outcomes at California community colleges, I came to realize how required mathematics courses—especially remedial algebra courses— were in fact limiting those opportunities and outcomes. This was true even despite the fact that the courses, in many cases, had little relevance to students’ college and career interests.

Dramatic changes have occurred since then, with at least half of state higher education systems involved in work to diversify college math pathways to align with students’ programs of study. K-12 systems are beginning to follow suit. And if any brilliant individual gets credit for catalyzing these developments—as well as for opening the eyes of a non-math specialist like myself to the possibility of modernizing math pathways 12 years ago—it would be Uri Treisman, math professor and founder of the Charles A. Dana Center at the University of Texas at Austin.

What Uri once called the “joyful conspiracy” to make math more equitable and relevant has begun to blossom across the country, as was on display earlier this month at the Dana Center’s virtual convening on Designing Mathematics Pathways for Equity. But rather than simply celebrating progress to date, the conversation focused on how much remains to be done to ensure math equity—as well as the opportunity presented by the current moment.

As we emerge as individuals, students, teachers, and education systems from a year-plus of crises in public health and policing—a year that underscored and even deepened the vast inequities that characterize our public systems—there is new optimism that the darkest lessons of the past year will create new possibilities, including greater movement toward equitable and modernized math pathways.

“If we really center what the lived experiences are of students, parents, and families and a lot of the reforms that we’re trying to make, there is really this moment for what could be tremendous change,” noted Elisha Smith Arrillaga, who recently joined the Dana Center as managing director after masterfully leading the Education Trust-West over the last few years.

One of the most promising developments that is attracting new attention is data science curricula. And the data on epidemiology, criminal justice, and voting patterns that have recently saturated the public consciousness have only served to underscore its importance.

An exciting example was highlighted by the amazing Talitha Washington, who heads the new Atlanta University Center Consortium Data Science Initiative, focused on increasing the number of Black data scientists through its member institutions, four historically Black colleges and universities.

The initiative’s impressive array of offerings include “Data and the African Diaspora,” a course to be piloted at consortium members Spelman College and Clark Atlanta University in the fall, and envisioned as a course for all undergraduates. The three-credit course will use spreadsheets to examine concepts such as “how data is acquired, secured, analyzed, and visualized,” as well as “how data is used to control, aid, or disenfranchise.” And there is Professor Nathan Alexander’s statistics course at Morehouse College (another consortium member), which features data analyses commissioned by W.E.B. Dubois in the 1890s.

Also in Georgia, the public education system is working with the Dana Center’s Launch Years initiative to expand data science opportunities to students in high school. And in California, the Introduction to Data Science (IDS) developed at the University of California-Los Angeles has expanded from the Los Angeles Unified School District to 16 more districts around the state, plus pilots in three other states.

These developments raise the promise that, rather than be turned off from mathematics, or simply endure it, more students will have the chance to learn math in ways that change their lives.

Noted Erica Heinzmann of University of California-San Diego, who has studied the IDS curriculum, at the Dana Center conference: “All around us, we are always making sense of data, and so regardless of what career they go into, they will have really developed critical thinking skills … embedded reasoning that is so powerful for whatever you do in life.”

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