December 15, 2022
Rethinking Math

The Role of Math in Creating an Equal Citizenry

Katrina Goto
The Role of Math in Creating an Equal Citizenry

For many of us, the start of a new year marks a time of reflection and goal setting. In 2022, I earned my B.A. with highest honors in political science and high distinction in general scholarship from UC Berkeley, I began my new role as program associate at Just Equations, and I studied for and took the LSAT—and met my goal score, thankfully. 

As I reflect on how I got here—a combination of hard work, privileges, luck, dedication, and public K–12 education—I’m grateful to have had the opportunities required to build the foundations of a career I'm passionate about and to prepare me to be a fully participating citizen. Unfortunately, I've learned along the way that there is not equal opportunity in our education system to get to this point. Working at Just Equations, I see what a key role math plays in creating unnecessary barriers.

Aristotle considered an educated people to be integral for state survival and advocated education for the sake of the republic. Education, he argued, shaped the citizenry. American children become contributing citizens vis-a-vis democratic participation, legal adulthood, employment, and financial independence at age 18. Ideally, by the time they reach this age, they should be equipped with the quantitative skills necessary to achieve financial literacy, critically analyze quantitative information, and gain access to higher education. 

Moreover, American children are legally required to attend school until at least age 16. Given that 90 percent of American children attend federal, state, and municipally funded public schools, and that state and local governments dictate educational standards, the education system has an imperative to endow students with the requisite skills for citizenship.

But in college, while volunteering in a mentorship program addressing social and systemic barriers to postsecondary education in public schools throughout the San Francisco Bay Area, I witnessed firsthand how the education system fails to carry out this responsibility with equity. I met with students who were left to navigate the complex education system without the same resources as their peers born into a different zip code. The ideal of the American dream—the dream of equal opportunity, justice, and democracy—cannot exist when we presume equality of opportunity where it does not exist and consider a hierarchy defined by systemic inequities to be indicative of merit. By failing to ensure equal access to quality curricula and educational resources, America is failing its children. In doing so, it fails all of us, impacting our future innovation, our democracy, and the endurance of the American dream. 

Mathematics policy and curricula are no exception. “Fair” requirements and preferences (such as prioritization of high school calculus in college admissions) appear opportunity-neutral. However, considering that fewer than half of American high schools even offer calculus, and that the schools not offering the course disproportionately serve low-income communities of traditionally underrepresented students, the preference for calculus functions as a barrier even though most students won’t ever need calculus to succeed in their college coursework or eventual employment.

So what does it look like to develop a mathematics education that creates an equal citizenry? Broadly, it requires major education reform. It calls for students to have guaranteed meals, for teachers to have livable wages and professional development opportunities, for shortages to be addressed, for students to have access to tutors and counselors. 

In math, it looks like ensuring that all students have a rigorous quantitative reasoning foundation and math pathways that reflect 21st-century needs. Data science and statistics courses, as well as other innovative math courses, align with many students’ career aspirations better than the traditional calculus-for-all route. That’s not to say the calculus route can’t be valuable for many students. If a kid doesn’t like broccoli, you don’t stop giving them vegetables; you give them choices, so they find their own way to live nutritiously. And, who knows, with enough exposure, they might even learn to love broccoli! Giving students more pathways to learn to love math only creates more citizens with strong quantitative reasoning skills. That’s not to mention how data science and statistics help students develop critical thinking around the use, presentation and manipulation of data—a skill essential to holding those in power accountable and upholding our democracy. In our increasingly data-rich world, these skills are crucial for learning to call out misinformation and applying mathematical understanding to local and global issues. 

In 2022, Just Equations did some incredible work toward building this mathematics of opportunity, from our spring conference to our report Calculating the Odds. I’m excited to be part of that work again in 2023. 

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