BERKELEY, CALIF. — Mathematics may seem timeless, but the way it’s being taught isn’t keeping up with the times. Current course sequences — or math pathways — create barriers to opportunity for large numbers of students and include difficult but obsolete topics that are not relevant to many students’ aspirations.
According to Branching Out: Designing High School Math Pathways for Equity, a report out today from Just Equations, mathematics courses need to support students’ transitions to and through college, whether they’re pursuing STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) disciplines or other promising fields like law, politics, design, and the media.
“It’s clear that math policies and pathways need to change — to address equity, to support more students, and to keep up with the needs of emerging professions and job markets,” said Pamela Burdman, Just Equations founder. “Courses like statistics and data science are much more relevant to students pursuing non-STEM careers. We need to give them the math tools and education they need to be prepared for the future.”
Many potential STEM students, especially Latinx and African American students, are being filtered out of opportunities because of the way math courses are used to select students, rather than prepare them, the report said. At the same time, too many whites, Asians, Latinxs, and African Americans are being blocked from pursuing other careers by irrelevant math hurdles.
“The real opportunity is transforming our hearts and our minds,” said California Community Colleges Deputy Chancellor Daisy Gonzales at a recent convening, “to change and dismantle structures that have perpetuated power and inequality in our K-12 and higher ed systems.”
In Branching Out, report authors Phil Daro, one of the principal authors of the Common Core State Standards, and Harold Asturias, director of the Center for Mathematics Excellence and Equity (CeMEE) at UC Berkeley’s Lawrence Hall of Science, synthesize the latest thinking about how to design high school math pathways for equity, and discuss next steps for K-12 and post-secondary institutions, as well as researchers.
- More than one pathway: With the presumed common pathway failing to serve the majority of students, it is time to design alternatives that work for many more students. Students need high-quality options, not just STEM versus non-STEM.
- Education systems must be able to respond as effectively to a future musician who is uninterested in traditional math courses as they would to a student who wants to be an engineer, but hasn’t had a chance to take advanced math courses.
- Pathway choices vs. tracking: Students’ options frequently have been limited by traditional tracking policies, as well as by inadequate course offerings. In effect, decisions are being made for students, but rarely in transparent and accountable ways.
- Existing high school math sequences, and the way students are traditionally assigned to them, are part of the problem. They are based on the presumption of one primary pathway in which only some students can succeed.
- Positive academic identity and agency cannot happen without deliberate work on the part of educators to address implicit bias, assumptions about student capabilities, and the ways that math traditionally reinforces privilege.
- Postsecondary policies and practices: Higher education policies and practices, particularly admissions and readiness policies, have long exerted serious leverage over high school mathematics pathways.
Any effective system for moving students through middle and high school mathematics will have the following elements:
- pathways as options that lead to postsecondary opportunities, with some flexibility to switch pathways
- relevance of pathway content, expertise, and goals
- recruitment of students to pathways
- support for students within pathways
Some districts and state systems already are making innovative changes to pathway options.
Oregon’s education systems and two California school districts (Escondido and San Francisco) have implemented alternative math pathways in different ways, showing that there is more than one way to engineer pathways that offer students worthwhile options.
Internationally, many countries with better math outcomes than ours, including Finland and
Singapore, have common courses through ninth grade, followed by specialized programs beginning in the equivalent of 10th grade, with math tailored to students’ specialties and interests. STEM aspirants often take two math courses in 10th grade. (By contrast, in the U.S. system, students taking two math courses are often those who struggle with math).