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Does math education work for all? Debate rages over changes to how US teaches the subject

Bold recommendations to make math more inclusive are blowing up the world of math education. Opponents say the movement effectively dumbs down math.

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How to make math class more inclusive
How to make math class more inclusive
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In 2010, Cheryl Brannan of Yonkers was so concerned that her daughter would get an inadequate education in math and science that she started a tutoring program in STEM for African American girls. 

Since then, over 1,000 middle and high school students in Westchester County have participated in a summer camp or year-round academy to advance their math and science skills and learn about careers using them. 

“Black girls and girls of color far too often feel that they cannot master math, due to societal constructs and racial stereotypes,” Brannan said. “That’s why they are so underrepresented in STEM and health fields. We have to flip the script and change mindsets, so that children of color believe they can do math and will do math.” 

Sayidana Brannan-Douglas, left, tutors Tiara Kidd, 15, from Gorton High School and Simone Brannan, 15, from Saunders High School, in geometry, during a math tutoring session held by the Sister to Sister International, Inc., at the Yonkers Public Library, Oct 23, 2021.
Sayidana Brannan-Douglas, left, tutors Tiara Kidd, 15, from Gorton High School and Simone Brannan, 15, from Saunders High School, in geometry, during a math tutoring session held by the Sister to Sister International, Inc., at the Yonkers Public Library, Oct 23, 2021. Mark Vergari/The Journal News

Brannan already ran a nonprofit called Sister to Sister International to promote African culture among Black girls and young women before making math and science education a focus of the organization. 

It turns out Brannan was ahead of the curve, anticipating bold moves to make math more inclusive that are blowing up the world of mathematics education across the country.

Reporting by the USA TODAY Network shows that some schools are emphasizing real world problems and collaboration, collapsing math "tracks" to put kids of all abilities in the same classes, adding data science courses that carry the same prestige as Calculus and more.

Cheryl Brannan, the President and Founder of Sister to Sister International, Inc., is pictured at the Yonkers Public Library, Oct 23, 2021.
Cheryl Brannan, the President and Founder of Sister to Sister International, Inc., is pictured at the Yonkers Public Library, Oct 23, 2021. Mark Vergari/The Journal News

The changes have pitted math educators against some mathematicians and sparked criticism from affluent parents upset by the elimination of gifted tracks. They've caused upheaval in one state, California, as professors, parents and teachers spar over proposed changes to the state's K-12 math framework.  

"We're not changing or lowering the standards. We're outlining how inequitable the teaching of math is right now," said Jo Boaler, a Stanford University math education professor at the forefront of the changes.

Opponents say the new movement effectively dumbs down math education. 

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Lower-achieving students often have deficits that begin in the early grades, and that's where the focus and energy should go, said Wayne Bishop, a mathematics professor at California State University, Los Angeles.

Increasing hands-on projects doesn't mean students will be well-prepared.

"The result is that more people are admitted to college but fewer are prepared for a hard science or engineering college regimen," Bishop said.

New approaches to 'fit needs'

New approaches to 'fit needs'

Algebra classes taught by Nadine Ebri in Duval County, Florida, look different than the ones you probably took in school.

Students practice equations through singing, dancing and drawing. Activities are sculpted around their hobbies and interests: anime, gaming, Minecraft. Problem-solving is a team sport, rather than an individual sprint to the right answer.

Ebri uses new techniques designed to promote equity. If kids of color, girls and low-income students engage, they'll be more likely to pursue high-level math classes, the argument goes. 

After Ebri began emphasizing real-world problems and collaboration, her students, most of whom are Black, improved their scores on Florida's math exam in 2020-21 — even with 1 in 3 learning from home.

"Kids should never have to change who they are to assimilate into classroom culture," Ebri said. "I should change my instruction to fit their needs." 

The reason that Ebri and others are trying new approaches is that many low-income students and kids of color haven't done well in math for a long time, according to test scores. That translates to big divides later in lucrative STEM fields, where 70% of workers are white and 65% are male, according to the American Enterprise Institute.  

The pandemic has made things worse. Only 17% of third-graders at majority white schools performed on grade level in math this fall; just 4% of students attending majority Black schools did the same, according to a report by Curriculum Associates.

Other approaches around the country include:

  • Hartford schools eliminated Honors Algebra I and enrolled all students in Algebra I instead, effectively eliminating ability tracking in ninth grade math. They also encouraged teachers to recommend students for advanced high school classes even if they lacked attention or focus, which keeps many kids out.

  • In suburban Chicago, Evanston Township High School started de-tracking math classes after doing the same in English and science. If students pass an honors assessment, they receive a half-point boost in their GPA. Evanston Township also started offering a Precalculus and AP Calculus class exclusively for students who identify as Black, intended to make students feel better supported. The high school also offers an Algebra II class for students who identify as Latinx.

The political factor rears head

The political factor rears head

Making math more relevant by using real-life problems, sometimes around social inequities, has struck a nerve around the country. In many states, Republicans accuse teachers of overemphasizing race and racism in subjects such as American history. Many GOP-led states have passed laws aimed at curtailing such discussions.

In New York, Democrats control the state Legislature and there's no real push for such legislation. But there are pockets of opposition in many communities to diversity, equity and inclusion plans that seek to add a multicultural perspective to instruction and more.

In California, critics of the new framework say teachers need to double-down on teaching routine math basics to help low-performing students improve. 

"A real champion of equity and justice would want all California’s children to learn actual math — as in arithmetic, algebra, geometry, trigonometry and calculus — not an endless river of new pedagogical fads," says a letter to the state signed by 1,163 math and science professors.

Many math educators disagree. They want all that same math to be taught, they say, with a stronger focus on access and equity.

"We value the role that mathematics can play in highlighting and ultimately addressing social injustice," says a letter signed by more than 1,500 math and science educators and parents.

Drilling the basics – fast

Drilling the basics – fast

Leadership Prep Canarsie, an elementary charter school in Brooklyn, has its own style of math instruction designed to keep everyone engaged: fast-paced, collaborative and loud. 

Most students are Black and low-income – and they're outpacing their peers statewide in math. About 69% of Leadership Prep students and a partner middle school scored proficient on the state math exam in 2019, compared with 47% of students statewide. 

Math classes begin with skip-counting – students calling out number patterns, like times tables, in cheerleading style to build fluency. Then there's one-minute quizzes on recent lessons, with students reviewing each other while teachers listen. Students explain their answers to the class; those off track are quickly queried about their reasoning. 

Activities and discussion happen in three minutes or less. Students respond to verbal prompts in rhythm.

“Now I have a challenge,” fourth-grade teacher Kaitlyn Chin says.

“Bring! It! On!” the class shouts. 

“The idea that math is only for people who are good at math doesn’t apply here,” said Alexandria Timoll, dean of curriculum and instruction. 

Leadership Prep Canarsie is part of Uncommon Schools, a network of 57 charter schools in New York, New Jersey and Massachusetts. The organization emphasizes math understanding by having students explain and model their thinking.

“The idea is not to pursue the right answer at all costs," said Paul Powell, assistant superintendent of Uncommon Schools. "We want students to develop fluency with numbers, a conceptual understanding – each time we move a decimal place, what does that mean? – and to be able to apply what they’ve learned.” 

Helping each other

Helping each other

Young women in Brannan's tutoring program, now a STEAM Academy, have long believed that students of color don't always get a fair shake in math classes.

“If a teacher believes that Asian students will be proficient in math, but African Americans won’t be interested because their parents didn’t learn it in school, that’s a problem,” said Jhinelle Walker, 23, a former student who studied forensic anthropology at SUNY Stony Brook and now runs the tutoring program. 

Walker said that too many students of color must contend with teachers’ low expectations and with teachers’ inability to show how math is used in real life. 

On a recent Saturday, over a dozen girls traveled up to an hour for tutoring and mentoring at a Yonkers library. Sachi Russell, 17, a senior at Yorktown High School, said that students from diverse backgrounds want to know why math matters. 

“Students are curious about so many things, like budgeting, how you pay taxes, subsidized housing and gentrification, and would want to know how math relates to it all,” she said. “Math is very difficult, so we need to keep students from losing interest, thinking it’s not worth the effort. It can’t be equation after equation.” 

Tiara Kidd, 15, a sophomore at Gorton High School in Yonkers, said she felt fortunate to have natural interest in math. Her friends who don’t really struggle. 

“A lot of my friends are from Spanish-speaking backgrounds, and they don’t know what math is about,” she said. “Teachers shouldn’t want you to just solve something the way it says in a book or how they were taught.” 

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