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Developing an Inclusive and Effective Policy Agenda

September 20, 2021|By Elisha Smith Arrillaga

This summer, the Dana Center published a blog series featuring some notable leaders who served on the Launch Years initiative’s consensus panel. Consensus panel members provided valuable insights and support to the meaningful and groundbreaking Launch Years work designing equitable and effective mathematics pathways from high school through postsecondary education. 

Those of us involved in K–12 and postsecondary reform recognize the challenges of better aligning our education systems to achieve more equitable outcomes for our students. We also know that while policy is an essential component of any systemic reform, it is not a panacea. 

In our blog series, Jeremy Martin demonstrated that written or de jure policy often does not adequately address and solve the problems of misalignment and that a de facto examination of what is really happening paints a far different picture. David Bressoud shared that, despite the efforts of state policy to redesign our education system to reflect today’s reality, it still remains highly calibrated to student demographics and a national imperative that no longer exist. 

So how do we leverage state and postsecondary system policy in building math pathways, beginning in K–12 education, that provides students with the necessary math skills and knowledge to achieve their personal, academic, and career goals? 

First we must, as Brian Sponsler articulated, develop an advocacy strategy that enables policy leaders to align the policy imperative of math pathways with their self-interest and those of their constituents. Brit Kirwan described the importance of state and system leaders coming together in support of a shared vision for reform and meaningfully engaging faculty in the development and implementation of policy in classrooms. Finally, Diana Ceja explained the value of expanding who is invited to both shape and implement policy by including the perspectives of leaders who understand how policies and their implementation will impact students, their families, and their communities. 

Maintaining the urgency and timeliness of policy reforms while engaging in inclusive policy making may seem overwhelming. However, I have seen first-hand how an inclusive policy-making process to reform mathematics can achieve significant results for students. 

The following examples illustrate how it is often not what the policy is. Rather, how the policy is developed or implemented that makes the most profound impact on generating the desired equitable outcomes.

Buying Time to Build Capacity

In 2019, the California State University System, one of the largest university systems in the world, decided to reform its mathematics requirements. There were too many new entering students who were not successful in gateway math and should have received more preparation before enrolling at Cal State institutions. To ensure new entering students were better prepared for college-level math, Cal State decided to require a fourth year of high school math in admission standards. 

At the time, I was the executive director of Education Trust–West, the California branch of a national research and advocacy nonprofit organization committed to educational justice for students of color, students from low-income communities, and English learners. Although we were not opposed to students taking more math in high school—and, as a math major in college, I am always in favor of students taking more math—we knew that California does not have enough math teachers available to teach the needed courses in high schools. We also knew that low-income students and students of color have less access to math teachers and receive less math instruction. In fact, some studies found that increasing the amount of math required for admission would have a disproportionately negative impact on the admissability of Black students and Latinx students to Cal State institutions. to Cal State institutions.

In light of these factors, we proposed that Cal State pause on making the change in admissions requirements and work in deep collaboration with their K–12 partners to build the capacity of high schools to equitably deliver math instruction. The delay would provide high schools the time they needed to ensure that students received the math instruction necessary to be admitted to and succeed in Cal State institutions. 

Pausing the policy process to to avoid the unintended consequence of having a disproportionately negative impact on Black and Latinx students is important. Sometimes in policy work, we focus on the outcomes in a vacuum. By looking at the full landscape, we can influence policymakers to recommend changes that take into account all stakeholders.

Community Designed Practices Inform Equitable Policy

Policy change processes often fail to consider how reforms impact the ways educators interact with students in math classrooms. Education Trust–West, Just Equations, and 40 other organizations developed a Math Equity Toolkit focused on sixth through eighth grade math that details the strategies for delivering antiracist classroom instruction. 

The toolkit was a grassroots effort that included on-the-ground organizations that work closely with parents, families, and communities that support educational success. Organizations such as Parent Institute for Quality Education (PIQE), Californians Together, and Unbound Ed formed a powerful, broad-based coalition to help develop effective resources that were responsive to the needs of students, families, and their communities. The resulting toolkit focused on changing classroom practices to more effectively serve English learners, Black students, and Latinx students. Since its development, the toolkit has been used by thousands of educators across California to redesign instruction in their classrooms. 

This work became very important when the California Department of Education (CDE) began discussions on revising the California Mathematics Framework. A key goal of the framework revision was to provide tools and practices for working with English learners. 

Ultimately, the toolkit was a valuable resource during the policy discussions. Policy that is informed by instructional practice and developed by grassroots leaders who are fully committed to equitable outcomes results in better policy.

Signaling New Priorities Throughout the Education System

The University of California (UC) recently announced that it will accept high school data science and statistics, in addition to Algebra 2, for its mathematics admissions requirement. 

Those of us working in math reform know what a win it is to have one of the world’s preeminent higher education systems recognize alternatives to Algebra 2. By adding alternative math courses to their admissions requirements, the University of California is not diminishing the importance of calculus as a critical content area for many professions. Instead, UC is acknowledging that there is content knowledge and skills—such as computer science, statistics, and data science—that are equally important to today’s jobs. 

UC’s decision changes many of the incentives that other higher education institutions and K–12 districts respond to when setting mathematics requirements and designing mathematics instruction. 

On the K–12 side, the state of Georgia recently adopted new K–12 mathematics standards. The teacher-driven approach to developing the standards was supported by education leaders, including many from the Launch Years initiative and the Dana Center. By leading the way in modernizing math standards, Georgia has signalled that the content knowledge and skills needed of today’s workforce are being considered, and that the state is setting up students for success beyond high school. 

These changes in K–12 and higher education have the potential to set in motion reforms that ripple throughout the education system, creating new opportunities to design education pathways that increase opportunity and reduce inequity by prioritizing the mathematical knowledge and skills needed by today’s students. 

These examples illustrate that we cannot take big “P” policy at face value when generating equitable policy change that helps students, parents, and families access pathways aligned to students’ academic goals. 

To design effective policy that achieves equitable outcomes, it is critical to recognize that beyond the big “P” policy language itself, it is equally important to consider who is invited to be involved when policy is developed, how the reform is implemented, and the extent to which policy triggers reform to correct historic inequities throughout the education system. 

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About the Author

Elisha Smith Arrillaga

Dr. Elisha Smith Arrillaga joined the Dana Center as managing director in May 2021. She previously served as the executive director of The Education Trust—West, a national research and advocacy nonprofit organization committed to educational justice for students of color, students from low-income communities, and English learners.