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What if Mathematics Classes
Looked Like America?

by Susan L. Forman, Bronx Community College
and Lynn Arthur Steen, St. Olaf College

After teaching advanced mathematics for over ten years at suburban Roosevelt High School, Pat Forrester moved across town to Lincoln High to work on a new curriculum project. Pat knew how to excite students about mathematics, and was especially proud of the fact that even her most advanced courses at Roosevelt had always included about 10-15% minority students--nearly twice the national average. She had worked hard to be sure that all her students met course goals and high standards.

As it turned out, Pat's AP calculus class at Lincoln was unlike any she had ever taught: 9 African-Americans, 6 Hispanics, 5 Asian, 3 white. Pat couldn't help wondering whether these kids would have the same drive as her students at Roosevelt. Who would set standards for the class? Could she use her usual assignments? Would they get her jokes? Could they learn this stuff? What if many of them failed?

Anxiety and confusion are not uncommon emotions for mathematics teachers facing students from diverse cultures, especially those with little tradition of success in mathematics. Indeed, most teachers of advanced mathematics have had little experience with ethnically diverse classes. In contrast to their colleagues who teach English or history, mathematics teachers can't really say how (or even whether) a mathematics course should change if the class looked like America instead of like a corporate board.

The multicultural nature of American society offers a distinctive opportunity to prepare students to compete in an international economy. Yet the subject with the worst record of equity--mathematics--is the very subject in which poor performance is the most consequential. Weakness in mathematics cascades into many areas of education and employment, frequently leading to withdrawal from school and failure to get jobs.

More than individuals in any other country, Americans attribute success in mathematics to talent, not effort. Moreover, teachers and parents often underestimate the mathematical potential of students who do not fit their preconceived stereotypes. Labeling kids as poor, minority, or female, however well meaning, just provides excuses for low expectations. Yet the evidence from effective schools shows that all students can learn mathematics when provided with the right environment and resources. Unfortunately, most Americans don't believe strongly enough that achieving equity is worth real effort.

A modest goal for equity is that all students leave high school well prepared both for the world of work and for postsecondary education. Thus achieving equity requires comparable outcomes, not just equal opportunities. Since students do not learn mathematics at the same rate or in the same manner, equal treatment rarely will yield comparable results. Indeed, research shows that differences among individuals in mathematical performance vastly exceed differences between groups. Just as thoughtful parents provide different diets for children with different nutritional needs, teachers need to provide different approaches for children with different mathematical needs.

Most schools think this is being done already. Their solution is tracking--the dominant faith of mathematics education. Yet ironically (perhaps even perversely) tracking provides the least nutrition for those who need it the most. The results are easy to see: group differences on nationally normed tests primarily reflect differences in what students have studied--in courses taken or curricula offered. Our system of differentiated expectations actually magnifies inequities; yet everyone, it seems, buys into this system.

Teachers carefully match each student with a curriculum they believe the student is capable of learning. Principals join the conspiracy by assigning the least experienced teachers to students whose needs are greatest. Activist parents go along too, so long as their own children get the benefits of the best courses and best teachers.

But some kids, predominantly poor and minority, get relegated to a mathematical wasteland of general and consumer math--the sediment of the layered curriculum. These are nothing more than dead-end options, and remedial programs intended to compensate for lost years are, by and large, expensive failures. To put an end to this travesty, the new mathematics standards boldly set high achievement by "all students" as a primary goal of school mathematics. This requires nothing less than high expectations and commensurate instructional resources for all students in every grade. Effective instructional programs, like high performance manufacturing, seek to prevent failures rather than correct them.

For decades, mathematics has been used as the great sorter and selector, as the critical filter for high paying careers. But it could as well be the great equalizer--not only for the pocketbook, but also for the mind. Mathematics enables children to know that they are right without depending on adult authority. No other subject confers so much power on children.

Unfolding the intrinsic power of mathematics was the secret of Pat's success at Roosevelt. But mathematics--contrary to popular opinion--is deeply influenced by the contexts in which it arises, and these contexts are not culture-neutral. Students in ethnically diverse classes, in confronting a challenging curriculum, can see that mathematics can be approached in many different ways and that everyone struggles with tough problems. In such classes students--and their teachers--can learn from direct experience that white kids don't have a math gene any more than do black or brown kids.

Experience can change beliefs. Skeptics can become believers. Some schools even in areas of poverty perform well above average. If some can do it, why can't others? Because most people don't really believe that it is possible for all students to learn algebra and geometry. That's where equity begins: with strong belief in high expectations for all.

Susan L. Forman is Professor of Mathematics at Bronx Community College of the City University of New York. Lynn Arthur Steen is Professor of Mathematics at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota. Forman and Steen are co-directors of Project EXTEND. This article is reproduced by permission from the book "What Educational Leaders Should Know About Equity," to be published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).

To add your voice to this discussion, e-mail comments, letters, and op-ed articles to: extend@stolaf.edu or click here if your Web browser is set up for e-mail.

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Last Update: 06/27/96