Are We All “Math People”?
When I describe the work of the Dana Center to my friends and family, I often hear the refrain, “Oh, I’m not a math person.” Five years ago, I would have answered that way, too.
On top of consistent—and unintentional—messages from teachers and family members reinforcing the idea that mathematical ability is a fixed characteristic—you were either good at math or you were not—I still vividly recall early experiences that for decades led me away from the subject.
In fifth grade, at a small rural school in West Texas, I still had some confidence in my capacity to “do math”—but it was based solely on the fact that I could complete endless numbers of repetitive worksheets by quickly doing mental calculations, jotting down the answers, then moving back to the much more exciting library book in my desk.
Some of my teachers, though, said this was “the wrong way” to do math, and I ended up losing points because I showed only a solution and did not show my work. Math became a roadblock to fun, something I viewed as an annoyance.
Then, as I was entering grade 6, my family moved to the Austin area. My transition to the big city was fraught with anxiety. After taking some assessments, I was placed into advanced classes, including an advanced mathematics course. But—perhaps because of my country accent or, more likely, my poor attitude—within the first week, I was moved to the regular math class, a defining moment in my journey to concluding that I was not “a math person.”
Today, though, I think differently about mathematics. Through my own persistence in learning statistics during graduate school, and through my Dana Center work with curriculum authors and faculty, I’ve come to understand that with a growth mindset, good teaching, and aligned supports, even those of us who’ve long felt we are “not a math person” can succeed in mathematics.
And, through my work as an education policy analyst, I’ve also come to understand that the classrooms where student-teacher relationships develop are profoundly influenced by the broader education policy environment. In fact, education policy can create conditions enabling many more students to become a part of the mathematics community.
Informed policies at multiple levels of the system are fundamental to the mathematics pathways movement—centered on rigorous, evidence-based, coherent course sequences to support student learning and success in mathematics relevant to their chosen course of study.
About 50 to 70 percent of students entering college each year are considered “underprepared” for college-level mathematics. Historically, the traditional approach to this problem was to place students into long sequences of disconnected developmental mathematics courses to teach them the necessary skills before moving to a college-level course. For too many students, this approach inadvertently signaled that they did not belong in the mathematics community—that they were not math people.
The outcomes from these long sequences of developmental courses are shocking. Fewer than 20 percent of students placed in those courses ever actually move forward and complete a college-level math course—meaning over 80 percent of those students were unable to attain their degree due in large part to mathematics.
In response to these troubling findings, the professional mathematical associations have published consensus recommendations calling on postsecondary mathematics departments to systematically revise their policies and practices to support what is now known about optimizing mathematics pathways for student success.
Policymakers across states and higher education systems have also become involved in the discussion and are introducing legislation and changing institutional structures to help ensure that mathematics is not a barrier to student success. Combined with the guided pathways reform movement, and incentivized by policies that prioritize student completion, higher education systems across the nation are now adopting mathematics pathways principles at scale.
One recent example of such legislation is Texas HB 2223. By requiring that at least 75 percent of underprepared students be placed directly into a college-level math course with co-requisite supports, this policy intends to signal to those students that they do, in fact, belong in the mathematics community.
The outgoing president of the Mathematical Association of America, Francis Edward Su, gave a retiring address last year titled, “Mathematics for Human Flourishing,” in which he wondered:
So I ask, with great humility: are we a just community? If you believe that mathematics is for human flourishing, and we teach mathematics to help them [students] flourish, you will see, if you look around the room, that we aren’t helping all our students flourish. The demographics of the mathematical community does not look like the demographics of America. We have left whole segments out of the benefits of the flourishing available in our profession.
Right now we are seeing the convergence of leading-edge mathematics research and research-informed policy development as we work to help ensure that all our students succeed. It is essential that we make the most of this moment and continue to welcome more students into our mathematics community. We are all math people, after all.
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