When We Say Math Is For Everyone, Let’s Make Sure We Mean It

Jul 5, 2024 8:00:00 PM

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When We Say Math Is For Everyone, Let’s Make Sure We Mean It
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Providing today’s students with the mathematics skills they need to succeed in the future is as essential and urgent as ever, whether they’re making scientific breakthroughs, launching their businesses, or analyzing data to make decisions in any field.

As schools continue to respond to the effects of pandemic-related disruptions to math learning alongside a call from students for more relevance in their education experience,  districts need to make math-specific investments in high-quality instructional materials, professional learning for teachers, and equity-minded policies and practices to improve math outcomes for all students. In addition, their approach must focus on building strong math identities among students.

EdVestors, a Boston-based school improvement nonprofit, launched Math is for Everyone to increase equitable outcomes in mathematics across Boston Public Schools. Since 2021, we have worked with a cohort of teachers and coaches to improve math teaching and learning. Student and educator mindsets related to math emerged as a critical component of improvement efforts. Three schools from the current Math is for Everyone cohort provide examples of strategies that are helping students develop strong identities as math learners.

Developing Math Mindsets

At the Mather Elementary School, a unique approach to shaping math identities and mindsets has been implemented.

Teachers carefully plan to shape how students see themselves as competent math learners in charge of their learning. For example, teachers are implementing specific classroom strategies to disrupt status in the classroom, including starting the year with a “Unit 0” that focuses on mathematical risk-taking, perseverance, and joy.

Throughout the year, the cohort collects data from teachers and students to measure changes in perceptions and mindsets over time. They use this information, MAP data, and classroom observations to inform their work. In classrooms where these strategies were implemented, students were more likely to collaborate and build off their classmates’ ideas. They were excited to “talk math” with each other.

In addition, teachers and other school community members are more likely to recognize the various ways students contribute to math learning in the classroom. Across the school, the percentage of students meeting or exceeding expectations more than doubled between 2021 and 2023, and they have seen particularly significant jumps among multilingual learners.

Learning from Math Listening Campaigns

A team of educators at Henderson K-12 Inclusion School also focuses on students' math class experiences.

The team designed a listening campaign to understand how students view math and themselves as mathematicians. The insights within and across grades were powerful and helped shape the team’s ideas about achieving more equitable student outcomes.

For example, they learned that their students’ confidence in their mathematics ability declined over time, a common trajectory in schools nationwide. Through their interviews, they also learned how students’ beliefs about what a “good” math student looks and sounds like shifted as students got older and what kinds of classroom structures helped or hurt their math learning.

The insights shape classroom and school-based strategies at Henderson K-12, ranging from classroom grouping decisions to engaging in more conversations and planning across grade levels to school-wide structures that increase collaboration between teachers and students.

Building College-Going Math Identities

Math identities continue to evolve as students age, and they often become particularly salient as they navigate postsecondary options.

As an early college high school, Fenway High School is committed to ensuring its students have access to the opportunities at Boston’s top universities and institutions surrounding their campus. Fenway recognizes math as an important part of that preparation in STEM and beyond.

Over the past several years, the math department has focused on preparing students with the academic skills and the confidence they need to succeed in college-level math courses, both while they are at Fenway and after graduation. This has involved curricular changes to target essential math skills for their college-level math courses.

It has also required deep collaboration between the Fenway team and their colleagues at the University of Massachusetts Boston and Wentworth Institute of Technology to provide each student with the holistic support they need to access help and persevere through challenges.

The Fenway team is seeing exciting results, including increased persistence and success in the college courses. In addition, their focus on readying students to take college-level math courses in high school has likely contributed to the school’s improvement in MCAS math performance. In 2022, they showed the second-highest 10th-grade math growth in the state, with anecdotal evidence of increased confidence and self-efficacy. As one student shared, “What I realized is that, yes, the courses are a bit more rigorous than high school, but that doesn’t mean it’s not achievable.”

Many solutions are being employed to address the current state of mathematics education. Alongside a focus on rigor and relevance,  solutions must attend to the ways that students see themselves and are seen as capable math learners. It will take intentional strategies at classroom, school, and district levels to ensure that math is, in fact, for everyone.

Heather Johnson

Heather Johnson is the VP of Programs, Strategy & Impact, where she oversees three program areas and provides strategic direction, leadership, and thought partnership related to EdVestors’ influence and impact. Heather came to EdVestors from JFF, a national nonprofit that drives change in the American workforce and education systems to ensure access to economic advancement for all.

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