About Julian

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I teach math to kids. They teach me a lot of things, too. I think it's an even swap.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Equity and Mathematics

Well, my last post was fun.  This one will probably only interest math educators.

Back in 1985 and '86, long before my current students were even born, I had the honor of leading freshman calculus workshops at UC Berkeley under the direction of Uri Treisman.  At the time, the workshop program, the Professional Development Program, was considered revolutionary, demonstrating that through a system of collaboration and high standards, students of color could perform as well or better than their peers.  Though I primarily took that gig to help pay for college, it served as the foundation for my beliefs in education and the power of education to address equity issues in our society.  Teachers don't often realize the influence they have on their students' lives, but Uri Treisman was one of the most influential people in my personal and professional development.

Recently, Uri gave a talk at the National NCTM meeting about equity and mathematics education.  It's data-heavy, which we math-wonks love, and it's rather long, but it is one of the most important talks on math education I have ever heard.  I have embedded a video below which Dan Meyer put together linking the slides with the talk.  Thanks, Dan!

In the talk, many major issues in math education and our society are addressed succinctly and convincingly.
  • Equity and poverty
  • Common core 
  • Assessments
  • Teacher performance evaluation
  • Charter schools
  • School reform
There are so many remarkable takeaways, that I suggest you view the video yourself, a few times if possible.  Dan Meyer gave a very good summary of the most quotable points, so read his post on this as well.  I would like to highlight the primary takeaway for me - the effects of poverty and the increasingly pernicious problem of wealth inequality masking any efforts to quantify the benefits of teacher evaluation, charter schools, or the Common Core on education improvements.

Treisman points out that in our society, the only real wage increases in the past forty years have occurred in high-skilled jobs, and the primary indicator of whether or not you will obtain a high-skilled job is your math education level.  It is the single biggest factor in our upward mobility.  Math educators have one of the single most important jobs in this country. The "Land of Opportunity" depends on us.

Favorite quote:
As citizens, we need to work on poverty and income inequality or our democracy is threatened. As mathematics educators … we need to work on opportunity to learn. It cannot be that the accident of where a child lives or the particulars of their birth determine their mathematics education.

Poverty sucks.  Treisman was able to disaggregate PISA test scores by percentage of Free and Reduced Lunch students at the schools.  In doing so, he showed that students in the U.S. actually outperform European states with comparable poverty rates.  It is not crappy teachers, crappy curriculum, nor crappy facilities that bring down the average U.S. score, it's poverty.  The education system appears to be doing pretty ok.  Our social system needs work.

Improving education in America will need to take on the battles of poverty, income equity, and social justice.  It will not be fixed solely by changes in curriculum models, teacher evaluation systems, or by testing kids even more.  As math educators, we need to do what we can to ensure all students have mathematical opportunity; as Americans, we need to do what we can to ensure all citizens have social opportunity.

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