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Equity and Access: Teachers Count

"Equity and Access in Mathematics Education" was the subject of an EXTEND Roundtable held on May 16, 1996 at the Charles A. Dana Center for Mathematics and Science Education at the University of Texas at Austin. This Roundtable provided a forum for teachers, administrators, employers, educational researchers, and university faculty to discuss equity and access in mathematics education in the context of rapidly changing state and local policy. This is the fourth in a series of reports summarizing sentiments that emerged from this Roundtable.

Teachers Count

Industry representatives find it hard to understand how school systems can operate with no apparent accountability for achieving goals. "There is a tremendous disconnect between state standards and what happens in the classroom. Where is the expectation for teachers to produce successful students? If we really believed in the same expectations for all students, society wouldn't stand for these inequities."

Yet society often underestimates the extent to which systemic factors affect student achievement--especially for students from lower socio-economic backgrounds. Racial tensions, rolling waves of new standards, and antiquated teaching patterns produce tremendous stress on teachers. One thing, however is clear from all the evidence: successful students depend on committed, energized, and enthusiastic teachers. As expectations (outcomes) and leadership (principals) really matter, so also do teachers.

Industrial leaders at the Roundtable urged teachers to develop "synergy" with business. Teachers need help acquiring appropriate tools to provide fundamental skills for school-to-job opportunities. Business leaders need to learn about the changes that are underway in mathematics education. This synergy can be especially helpful by bringing teachers and business leaders together as allies in fighting societal misconceptions of mathematics--that the goal of mathematics is to get the right answer and that the authority for what's right is the teacher or the back of the book. Business leaders and teachers both understand that the skills that really count are the abilities to reason with data, to explain a conclusion, and to justify an analysis.

Some teachers worry that business is looking only for basic skills. What really matters, report Roundtable participants, is the ability to solve problems and interpret information. This requires changing the style of teaching in such basic courses as algebra and geometry. Teachers need to work with business to learn about the relevance of high school mathematics to contemporary work. Then they need to engage all students in the kind of active problem solving and free-wheeling explorations that are too often reserved only for classes of so-called "talented and gifted" students.

"Mathematics is more than just curriculum." It has to do with self esteem and power. It opens doors that kids don't know exist. There is something very special about mathematics that should not be lost. Many immigrant children, as well as Hispanic and Black children, find in mathematics the unique power of knowing absolutely that they are right. In mathematics children can prove something no matter what anyone thinks. That's a very powerful experience. It opens children's eyes and turns on their minds.

The real issue, said one teacher, is about "ownership of mathematics"--is it the teacher's territory or the student's? Effective teachers not only know the content of their subject, but also the cultures and interests of their students. Good teachers looks for opportunities to build on the interests and successes of their students. They use applications to make mathematics meaningful, but applications are not the only way to engage students' curiosity and passion.

Most prospective teachers envision teaching pre-college mathematics to predominantly white students, many of whom are gifted and mathematically bright. In other words, they imagine classes full of students like themselves. Deep conflicts between the reality of school and the beliefs of teachers can create tremendous cognitive dissonance that paralyzes efforts at reform. This suggests a great need to change how we work with pre-service teachers--to focus on their expectations and attitudes and to engage them in the reality of urban schools. "Our universities need to find ways for mathematics and mathematics education faculty to integrate equity and access in all the courses they teach."

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: 07/06/96