April 26, 2024
Rethinking Math

Today’s Math Opportunities Determine Our Society’s Future

Pamela Burdman
Today’s Math Opportunities Determine Our Society’s Future

When it comes to the future of our society and our democracy, the stakes have never been higher—for how math is taught and learned.

The imperative of equitable math learning for a thriving democracy was spotlighted by speakers at Just Equations’ recent annual conference, The Mathematics of Opportunity: Closing the Divide (TMO).

As reliance on technology and algorithms grows across every industry, equitable math opportunities in high school and higher education are more critical than ever.

Yet, that necessity continues to go unmet for too many students—especially Black, Latinx, and low-income students. 

Seventy years after Brown v. Board of Education, we are still seeing extreme disparities in access to quality education, math education specifically, said Yeshimabeit Milner, a speaker at TMO. 

Milner, the founder and CEO of Data for Black Lives, pointed out that many students of color don’t even have the option to take advanced math in their high schools, a disparity highlighted in the Just Equations’ 2023 reportIntegral Voices: Examining Math Experiences of Underrepresented Students. While 46 percent of Asian American students and 18 percent of white students completed calculus in high school, only 6 percent of Black students and 9 percent of Latinx students did the same. 

Students confirmed this, sharing their own barriers to access in the Integral Voices report.

“When I was applying for college, it felt that schools were only looking for AP scores. I mean AP math classes,” one student said. “But my school that I went to didn’t have those.”

With math literacy being fundamental in the digitized world we live in, Milner said, a coordinated effort needs to be made to make sure underserved students are given the same opportunity, access, and resources to succeed in an increasingly mathematical and data-driven society. 

TMO keynote speaker Maya Wiley, president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, spoke to the same resource and access gaps in the context of artificial intelligence’s exponential explosion. 

Algorithms are showing a bias against people of color—for example, retail systems that identify darker-skinned people as security risks—reinforcing barriers that existed well before the advent of this kind of technology. One antidote is a stronger pipeline of people of color in STEM. 

Wiley recalled having “math phobia” as a child, despite having a privileged upbringing and a chemist for a father. 

“I am a proof point that we cannot blame parents or teachers. It’s the system,” she said. “Students don’t fail. Systems do.” 

And that leaves a massive portion of society without a seat at the table when it comes to everything from building algorithms that decide who gets a job interview to legislation addressing gerrymandering to how Alexa functions and responds.

Full citizenship, Wiley said, is the ability to identify problems we need solved and work together to solve them. 

So what changes can the system make? Updated and relevant math instruction that teaches real-life lessons, and the ability to be fluent in data, for starters. 

“Math is a lot easier to learn when you are faced with a real problem that needs to be solved,” said Andre Perry, who was part of the dialogue with Milner.

Perry, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute, used himself as an example of how every student is a math student, no matter their college and career path.

“I’m not a mathematician, but I use math every single day in my work,” he said.

“There’s something about math that connects to so many other systems, the systems that give life,” he continued. “When we’re talking about math we’re really talking about jobs, about education, the ability to communicate, to see complex issues.”

That’s why Perry advocates for moving math lessons beyond the abstract and toward math that is relevant, and even fun, for students to learn.

“We need young people in the mix. We’ve got to nurture them,” he said. “If we do and if we get out of the way, you’ll see more Black, brown, low-income mathematicians thrive.”  

As Wiley noted, it’s the children sitting in classrooms as you read this that will work to save us from climate change, find a cure for cancer, and make sure we have enough food to eat.

But they can do that only with a math education that gives them that opportunity.

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