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Three Barriers to Supporting High-Quality, Equitable Math Instruction and Ways to Address Them

Math-focused education networks are focused on supporting high-quality math instruction and helping address disparities in student success. As the field of education tries to respond to dramatic changes — a global pandemic, teacher shortages, and political disputes about education approaches — some networks are finding former approaches aren’t having the desired outcomes.

Members of the Networks for Education Equity cohort that are focused on reaching math educators met to reflect on barriers affecting high-quality, equitable instruction and approaches they are using to address these barriers.  

Representatives of Benjamin Banneker Association, California Math Project, Math Circle Network, and NCSM identified three key barriers.

1.     Gaps in Teacher Preparation and Content Knowledge

Since the pandemic, “we have a huge number of uncertified teachers and teachers who don’t have strong math backgrounds. In both of those cases, it’s much easier for teachers to turn to more traditional approaches than approaches that are in the discovery realm,” said Katey Arrington, president of NCSM.

These challenges within the teaching workforce can create a reinforcing loop in regard to curriculum choices.

“As more and more we bump into serious gaps in teachers’ content knowledge, this drives state- and district-level policies about instructional materials toward more scripted resources. Instead of giving teachers a collection of activities they can use to support learning objectives, they are giving them a script,” said Paul Gray, immediate-past president of NCSM.

Limiting teacher preparation to prescribed approaches impedes/limits teachers ability to think differently and creatively about math strategies that can lead to better learning outcomes especially for students most underserved.

2.     Challenges with Teachers' and Students' “Math Identity”

Research shows that having a positive “math identity” is a key driver of how successful one will be with math. How students view themselves directly correlates to math success. This is the case for teachers as well.

“The way we teach math has been so focused on getting a correct answer,” said Dr. Shelly Jones, president of Benjamin Banneker Association (BBA). “Students’ beliefs about their ability to do math is tied up in this. They focus on whether they got an answer right or wrong and don’t pay attention to the discovery and problem-solving process. We have to get students and teachers to understand math is about more than getting the right answer.” BBA is working to help students, parents, and teachers think differently about what math success can look like and the importance of math as a key skill students will need for long-term success.


3.     Overreliance on Testing in Schools

The significant focus on standardized testing has had a major impact on curriculum, instruction, and how teachers and students spend time in the classroom.

“Teachers are always saying, ‘We don’t have time to spend with our students on rich, cognitive tasks,” said Kyndall Brown, executive director of California Math Project. “The irony is, they have to rush through curriculum, and as a result their students aren’t learning as much as they could because they’ve gone so fast.”

While these barriers are systemic and not something that can be changed quickly, education networks are finding ways to address these barriers.

  • Using the network’s influence to advocate for change. Education networks can provide members with guidance and support to reach out to state and local decision makers about issues impacting their schools such as curriculum, teacher professional development, or learning and testing standards. “We’re equipping our members with language and position statements about how to make assessments more humanizing,” Paul Gray of NCSM said. “They can influence the assessment. We’re not going to get rid of assessment, but what we can do is tinker around the edges.”

  •  Helping teachers think differently about their and their students’ math identity. Math Circle Network has found that providing teachers opportunities to collaborate and engage with math in different ways helps shift teachers’ perceptions about not only their own math identity but their students’ as well. “Building teacher identity around math and giving the teachers the opportunity to have rich problem-solving experiences themselves is valuable,” said Brianna Donaldson, director of Math Circle Network. “We are finding that teachers who get to have those types of experiences start to open up in how they see their students’ math ability as well.” Similarly, California Mathematics Project (CMP) has found that when teachers are able to collaborate around equitable ways to meet the needs of their students through CMP’s lesson study process it helps shift some teachers’ math identity.


  • Thinking differently about where math success can happen. It can take a long time to influence change within school systems, but math happens everywhere, so BBA is experimenting with ways to support students’ math success outside the classroom in addition to within the school day. “We’ve been piloting student groups and having students involved in informal math spaces that are not just in the classroom but after school or embedded in other opportunities,” Shelly of BBA said. “We’re engaging students in fun math, challenging math, math they might not get at school so they can have fun with it and talk about it.” “We’re trying to provide alternative spaces and alternative ways of saying you can be successful in math in other ways outside the test,” President-elect Pamela Seda added.

As other education networks work to address barriers that sometimes seem insurmountable, consider the following questions.

  • How might you use your organization’s platform and voice to push for change?

  • How might you or your members work outside existing structures to support student success?

  • What opportunities can you create for educators to collaborate and problem solve together?

Small steps can eventually lead to larger changes. “Instead of thinking about what’s hard about what [our members] are asking us, find out what you can do,” Pamela of BBA said. “Focus on what’s possible rather than the difficulty.”

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