social justice math


photo-1462536943532-57a629f6cc60When people talk about equity in mathematics education, they are often talking about more equal access to high-quality mathematics instruction, better resources, and advanced courses. They might also mean higher achievement for historically low-performing students, like Black students or students from low-income backgrounds. Equitable teaching practices, like Complex Instruction, can go a long way towards helping every student have access to high-quality mathematics learning, and consequently higher achievement. But that’s only part of the picture.

An overemphasis on access and achievement through “good” math teaching ignores the fact that the school 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?


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

This problem was taken from a district-wide assessment (Tate, 1997), which unfairly relies on assumptions that middle-class students would make. To get the correct answer, you must assume a 5 day workweek. But students from lower income families might ask: 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.

Approaches to mathematics teaching that don’t question the mathematics curriculum itself have severe limitations. “Good” teaching alone doesn’t necessarily help students overcome inequities in society at large, which stem from racism, classism and sexism. Students need more critical awareness of how to advocate for themselves –  for their own mathematics learning in other math classes or for more equitable opportunities in general.

Focusing on social justice in mathematics education provides an alternative approach to promoting equity.

Teaching mathematics for social justice identifies 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 this site is designed to help you with.