Race, Equity and Mathematics Education
I had a wonderful teacher for my high school calculus class. He was kind and patient. He worked hard to explain ideas and show us how to solve problems. However, no matter how hard I tried, I never felt that I could actually excel in his course. There were a group of boys in my class, though, who I knew would succeed. It was clear that they had a connection with our teacher-one that I could never really have. They hung out with the teacher after class, listened to Pink Floyd together and were even a part of the yearbook club, which he ran. They seemed to get each other. The examples that our teacher gave and the connections that he made just seemed to make sense to those boys. They spoke the same language, laughed at the same jokes and had ideas that were in alignment with one another. The image of “successful calculus student” that was cast at our school was male, white and listener of rock music- mainly Pink Floyd. I could not see myself in that image and so there was a distance between me and “successful calculus student.” That distance mattered and had implications for my participation and success in that course.
Almost all students of color and particularly Black students must navigate this distance. To be successful in school they must contend with differences between who they are and who we as educators say that an academically successful person should look like, act like and think like. The navigation in mathematics is particularly tricky as Black students must resist societal and media imaging that portrays them as mathematically incapable. The field of education (schools, districts, administrators, teachers, aides, etc.) are stuck in a narrative that African American students are and will be perpetually behind the curve of others in mathematics. This narrative is “confirmed” through results on our standardized examinations and through the low numbers of Black and Brown students that we see in our college mathematics, engineering and STEM-based majors.
The unfortunate reality of African American student underperformance in mathematics is our own creation. We teach mathematics in ways that are disconnected from the experiences, ways of knowing and ways of being of African American students. We often times teach discrete bits of information in contexts that are disconnected from the Black community, its history, its work and its questions. We organize the mathematics programs at our schools to promote and extoll the students who have the greatest access to out-of-school resources including extensive tutoring and summer learning opportunities. We take credit for these students’ successes, even when much of what they know and can do did not come from what they were taught in our schools. Conversely, when the students who rely most on our classroom instruction perform poorly, we distance ourselves stating, “we taught them, they simply did not learn.” Finally, far too often our outcomes mimic rather than disrupt societal norms about African Americans. When the sports teams across our schools and districts are full of Black children, but these youngsters can barely be found in our upper division mathematics courses, we do not question such a reality. Our acceptance of these patterns speaks volumes to Black and non-Black students alike. Likewise, it places the burden of going against the grain on the backs of those Black students who are fighting hardest to succeed.
Black students are more than capable of succeeding in our mathematics classrooms. (In fact, many do, despite the litany of barriers they must knock down.) Any evidence gathered to the contrary is an indictment of the educational opportunities and experiences that they have been afforded. Until we do away with fundamentally flawed and deficient ideas about the intellectual and mathematical capacity of Black students, neither these students, nor we as a society will win. Whether we know it or not, we are in deep need of the mathematical contributions, inquiries and discoveries that these youngsters can bring us. I, for one, stand eagerly ready to receive them.