October 2018

Algebra and Civil Rights

The American Mathematical Society's Committee on Education
Algebra and Civil Rights

In a Washington D.C. address to the American Mathematical Society’s Committee on Education, Opportunity Institute founder Christopher Edley, Jr. highlights the equity dilemma surrounding college readiness requirements in mathematics. His thoughts lend support to the move toward diversifying math pathways in high school and college.

“Algebra requirements have a civil rights problem,” he notes.

“The law asks whether requiring Algebra 2 is an educational necessity, with no alternative. For English majors? Why not statistics? Algebra 2 Hurts. I recall when, forty years ago, activist educator Bob Moses taught us that algebra is a civil right because it functions as a gateway to so many opportunities in secondary and postsecondary education.That sounded right to me, generalizing from the racially disparate tracking in my own public schooling in the 1960s. The Moses narrative was about access in a practical sense; it wasn’t mere aspiration, or fake implementation. (Yes, our school offers the course but there isn’t room for you and, anyway, it conflicts with the English course you need.) Ensuring universal access to Algebra 2 seemed fundamental. And still does.But three years ago, a colleague introduced me to research on the racially disparate impact of math requirements on the attainment of minority and poor students. It was immediately clear to me from Pamela Burdman’s work that although Algebra 2 could be a path to opportunity it could also be a barrier—an unnecessary one."

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