Social justice in math? The What and Why

I grew up in a rural town in Tennessee, where statistically, my odds favored a path of teenage pregnancy and survival on low-income wages as an industrial worker. I watched my mother struggle with this reality, and with her steadfast support, I chose a different path. Meritocracy worked for me. I excelled in school, and with the support of grants and loans I attended one of the country’s elite private universities to earn my bachelor’s degree.

The opportunities that education afforded me inspired me to become an educator, and the desire to make success in mathematics a reality for more students drove my career choices. During my 9 years as an educator, I saw many students from various socio-economic, racial and ethnic backgrounds find success in mathematics. I am in awe of the many students who overcame their fear of mathematics and began to view themselves as capable, confident mathematics learners. But I also saw many students who did not have that experience. Students who left my classroom or my after-school program unsure of their ability to succeed in mathematics. Unsure of their ability to succeed, more generally. I struggled with the question of why many students, especially students of Color and students from low socioeconomic backgrounds, dreaded mathematics study. How could educators meet the needs of all students and engage them in relevant and rigorous mathematics study?

For years, I thought the answer lay in finding ways to give these students greater access to mathematical content, in order to promote higher achievement in mathematics. If only these students could find success in mathematics, their confidence and their overall academic success would grow. And then the opportunities were endless, right?

Not quite. Access to and achievement in mathematics are important, and equitable teaching practices are essential. But access and achievement in the mathematics classroom represent only part of the picture.  An overemphasis on access and achievement ignores the fact that the dominant mathematics curriculum is ripe with political, racial and gender bias. How and what students are expected to learn inherently gives some students easier access than others. The mathematics that we value, and therefore use to gauge achievement, reflects the viewpoints of the dominant group in our society (i.e. White, middle class, heterosexual male). The existing mathematics curriculum sends strong messages about who is capable of learning mathematics. It’s no wonder that some students struggle to succeed in mathematics and that others actively choose not to engage in mathematics.

For example, consider the following question:

It costs $1.50 to travel each way on the city bus. A transit city “fast pass” costs $65 a month. Which is the more economical way to get to work, the daily fare or the fast pass?

A typical white, middle class student might solve the problem this way:

5 workdays in a week x 4 weeks per month = 20 workdays in a month

20 days x $3 roundtrip = $60, so the daily fare is cheaper Source

However, some students of Color and some students from low SES backgrounds might feel there isn’t enough information to solve the problem. This problem might assume a 5 day workweek, which is not typical outside of the middle class. How many jobs does this person have? How many days a week does he/she work? The problem also assumes that the “fast pass” will only be used for commuting to work. Families without a car might also need to use the city bus for grocery shopping, for example.

Inequities in mathematics have roots that extend beyond the mathematics classroom itself. As a result, most mainstream approaches to mathematics teaching (those which don’t question the mathematics curriculum itself) have severe limitations. Even when students are successful with the dominate mathematics curriculum, that success often proves insufficient for helping students overcome inequities in society at large, which stem from racism, classism and sexism. Focusing on social justice in mathematics education provides an alternative approach to promoting equity. The research literature on teaching mathematics for social justice identities two pedagogical goals: (1) high quality mathematics instruction for all students; (2) development of sociopolitical consciousness and praxis through mathematics study. Social justice teaching in mathematics focuses on promoting equity within the mathematics classroom, but also on empowering students to understand and confront inequities outside the classroom. It’s this second goal that gives me renewed hope.

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