"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 second in a series of reports summarizing sentiments that emerged from this Roundtable.
"To think that providing equal opportunity is good enough," said one industry participant, "is a good way to lose your job. No one is going to give you an A for effort. That's not good enough. Industry needs results." To compete in the international arena, industry participants argued, Texas needs an effective, productive work force. And to maintain a viable economy, Texas must develop fully the diversity of the state--especially since diversity is a real asset in international trade. "The future of Texas depends more on how we educate all students in the state than on any other single factor."
Other business representatives agreed. "We need to show students how mathematics and science courses are meaningful, appropriate, and applicable for business. Business needs a work force coming out of the schools that meets the demands of international performance. Graduates must have greater skills in mathematics and be able to understand how these skills relate to their jobs."
But business is not the only voice arguing for accomplishment rather than effort as the new standard of equity. In Texas, the courts have suggested that their review of the effectiveness of a new system of school funding will be based not just on whether it provides substantially equal funds, but also on whether educational outcomes are more equitable. A mathematics professor at the Roundtable argued for outcomes that assure that "every person will be a productive member of society." Even superintendents and school boards are beginning to focus on outcomes as a means of establishing accountability in the educational system.
Roundtable participants returned repeatedly to two issues that must be changed in order to achieve equitable outcomes: beliefs and expectations.
First is the belief that every child can be successful in mathematics. It is not enough to say that for some success means algebra, while for others success means percentages. As one participant noted, "Success means nothing less for all than what I would expect for my own child."
In particular, we need to be sure, as one participant noted, "that at the end of twelve years of school, students will be able to make their own decisions about career paths--that their choices will not have been predetermined by limitations imposed by the educational system." A high school teacher echoed this sentiment: "We are not doing nearly as much as we could for most students when we still have mathematics courses that lock people out rather than invite them in."
A second problem is the invidious character of statistics and labels. By describing results in terms of groups--low scores in high poverty areas, high scores in predominantly white suburbs--we unwittingly endorse different expectations for different groups. "People hide behind labels--low SES, high ESL, etc.," said one teacher. "This makes it easy to be satisfied with the status quo. Until someone challenges that thinking, the attitude will just go on and on."
Stereotypes are reinforced by racially and socially segregated mathematics classes--slow classes for students of color, advanced classes for Asians and whites. One African-American teacher at the Roundtable complained that "all the black kids end up in my classroom. Think what that does to the kids self-esteem! We need leaders who will stop such practices." Although students can and do succeed in these classes, virtually all of them emerge with strengthened beliefs in destructive stereotypes.
Courses such as "slow algebra" and "pre-calculus" were cited by participants as examples of how the educational system perpetuates failure. Studies show that very few students who take these courses go on to succeed in advanced mathematically based courses. Because weak prior schooling has left many minority students underprepared, enrollments in these transitional courses are disproportionately minority. An outcomes-based system would insist that these courses accomplish their objectives--of preparing students for further study in mathematically-based fields. But a system built on excuses just continues to grind out course credits and grades that mean virtually nothing in either the academic or business marketplace.
Participants agreed that in order to attain equal outcomes for students who have had unequal experiences, it will take special effort for those who need the most help. "Students who have grown up in an environment where they learn how to decode the hidden priorities of the educational system move through school with a significant advantage. As educators, we have a particular responsibility for those who do not arrive at school with these special advantages."