Achieving Access and Equity in K-5 Mathematics Classroom

What is equity in math education? All students must have access to high level math, given the necessary preparation to succeed, and know that they can succeed. - Kathleen Wallace
September 08, 2022 1317 8

The Big Picture

The ability to do mathematics is a critical life skill. People who are mathematically fluent find their way around the world much easier than those who struggle with numbers. It’s especially important for all students to have equity in mathematics education in early childhood because many daily activities, such as shopping, banking, and cooking, require mathematics.

While we all must function quantitatively on a daily basis as we negotiate the world we live in, the importance of mathematical knowledge reaches deeper than daily life activities. Mathematics is a powerful tool that organizes our lives and prevents chaos. Math teaches us how to think.

The experience of working and thinking mathematically has profound benefits. Mathematics teaches us to think critically, to solve problems, to reason logically, and to think creatively. Therefore, it’s important to develop and implement equity-based mathematics teaching practices in your classroom to help all young learners develop problem-solving abilities and critical thinking skills.

The Achievement Gap

Not all young students have the same opportunity to fully develop their mathematical ability. There exists an achievement gap in mathematics, a gap between the scores of minority and low-income students, many of whom do not have equity in math education, and their white counterparts.

Recently, there has been a widening of that gap. This is clearly seen in the results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). Known as “The Nation’s Report Card,” the NAEP test results inform us on educational progress, both by individual states, and by the country as a whole.

The achievement gap is measured in “standard deviations.” A typical elementary student gains 0.3-0.5 standard deviations each school year. The gaps between minority and low-income students are about 0.75 standard deviations – roughly a year and a half of school gains. While recent results indicate a narrowing of the achievement gap, the disparity is, nonetheless, persistent.

The question arises, what is the cause of these gaps? A look at the large body of research on this topic shows that these underperforming students don’t experience equitable teaching practices. Funding, of course, plays a role in inequitable outcomes. But funding alone will not close the gap. Comprehensive research concludes that the achievement gap is caused by lack of equity in the mathematics classroom.

Three big problems

Traditional classrooms

We know very well that the traditional math classroom where students sit silently in their desks, watching the teacher demonstrate, and then working through pages of practice problems does not work.  Math classrooms that emphasize only the right answer and ignore understanding or reasoning do not promote equity and excellence in education, especially for students of color.

Similarly, using the “I do, we do, you do” teaching format does not promote equity in mathematics.  At the same time, rewarding speed and using tests to assess students’ performance are not equitable teaching practices because they reveal deficits rather than gains.

Low quality instruction

Students who are underachieving from early childhood are less likely to be taught by experienced and qualified teachers who guide students on learning paths of high expectations and achievements. Most importantly, these students are less likely to have teachers who promote equity in teaching mathematics or who have high quality math instruction skills.

Low quality curriculum

Students who are underachieving are less likely to be taught using a high quality math curriculum.  The nature of activities and problem sets in a math program either positively or negatively impact learning and student interactions. In low quality programs most mathematical tasks and exercises emphasize procedural calculations that create low quality learning.

These poor quality math curricula do not promote equity in mathematics education because they have low expectations and reward mediocre learning outcomes. In elementary school, this is about ability grouping, lowering of content expectations, and especially, low expectations for achievement. In middle and secondary grades, this is about tracking into high- and low-level courses, as well as prerequisites that exclude many students from taking advanced math.

Myth of “the math gene”

Regardless of race, color and socio-economic status, there are other issues that could stand in a way to equity in math education.  For example, the ability to do mathematics is traditionally seen as a fixed trait. Either you are a math person, or you are not. Some people just have “the math gene.” This thinking permeates math instruction in America.

This destructive way of thinking has caused math to be seen as a “culture of performance and elitism.” Math is used as the great separator – dividing students into the haves and have nots. Math is used as a sorting mechanism whereby students are labeled as either smart or not smart.

What is equity in mathematics education?

We know from a large body of research that “the math gene” myth is categorically not true, and that everyone has the ability to achieve in mathematics at a high level. Embracing this evidence is a big step on the road to equity in teaching math.  At the same time, we must commit to holding every student to high expectations.

A big part of mapping equity and quality in mathematics education is a high-quality rigorous math curriculum. All students must have access to high level math, and be given the necessary preparation to succeed. Above all, they must know that they can succeed.

Educators must work to change perceptions about who can do well in mathematics, not only for our own part, but also for our colleagues, administration, parents, and, especially, the students themselves.

How do you promote equity and access in the classroom?

Teach for excellence and equity in mathematics

The greatest gains on closing the achievement gap will be made in the classroom. Promoting equity in the mathematics classroom involves employing inclusive strategies that address the way children learn best. The inclusive classroom encourages students to think deeply about mathematics. 

Students must be taught and allowed to collaborate. Students of color as well as females need encouragement about their ability in mathematics. Problems presented must be open-ended, provide opportunities for multiple representations, and provoke thoughtful questions. Students take to this mode of instruction very easily, as it is true to the natural process of learning.

Use high quality math resources

Along with high expectations we must provide our students with high-level content. The quality of a math curriculum is an integral part of achieving equity and access in mathematics education. It is especially important for mathematical content to be pedagogically sound because its quality impacts the quality of K-5 teaching.

K-5 students learn best through concrete hands-on experiences and visuals that create a high level of engagement and provide a springboard for higher order thinking and conceptualization of mathematical ideas.

The Singapore Math adaptive curriculum is one of the best examples of high-quality K-5 resources because of its rigor and high expectations for mastering the most important concepts in elementary math, including place value, unitary system, mental math, fractions, and strategies for solving word problems.

Take Professional Development courses

K-5 teachers should take professional development courses to become familiar with constructivist teaching of mathematics, and equitable teaching practices. Equally important are problem-solving strategies, such as bar modeling, that focus on developing higher order thinking skills. 

Another good way to become familiar with these problem-solving strategies is for teachers to watch the instructional videos for teaching Singapore Math that provide step-by-step guidance for setting high expectations and teaching the rigorous curriculum.

My experience

Take the case of just one student from my own teaching. A third grader, Sophie is a minority student in a predominantly white school. She saw herself as “not good at math,” and would shut down during a math lecture.

When the classroom changed to a conceptual focus where children collaborated to develop their own understanding of the problem presented, Sophie began to participate with her peers, and eventually began to contribute to the class discussion. Her self-concept as a math student began to change for the better.

For more

Take our PD course: Achieving Access and Equity in the K-5 Mathematics Classroom

Teaching in a multidimensional classroom is a challenge, but one well worth the time and effort it takes to establish. In our work together in this course, Achieving Equity in the K-5 Mathematics Classroom, we will examine closely the instructional strategies that promote access to all. We will look at an instructional model that incorporates these strategies, and work together to customize it for our own classrooms. Feedback and advice will be shared.

Closing the achievement gap in mathematics is, indeed, a formidable undertaking. It is an important one for teachers, and well worth the effort. As teachers of mathematics, we have a wonderful opportunity to open mathematics to all students. We start by providing positive messages about our subject and continue with equitable teaching strategies that empower all students to succeed.

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