By Equity in Practice staff
Equity in Practice (EiP) is a small group of educators and administers from seven school districts in California who have embarked on a path of improving Black and Latinx students’ experiences in math.
The EiP work (see sidebar) began in January 2021 with a series of participant interviews, surveys, and a virtual event to help participants chart the dynamics and conditions related to racial equity in mathematics in their systems, and to consider changes they wanted to make.
As WestEd analyzed the data generated in this early phase of EiP’s work, four themes emerged about the key challenges participants identified in their districts:
- Addressing inequitable access to mathematics content, particularly due to course placement decisions
- Focusing on changing implicit bias instead of changing adult biased behaviors
- Getting buy-in to begin work challenging adult racist and biased behaviors
- Gathering the right data to understand problems and to measure success
This blog post explores the first two bullets, using anonymous quotes from participants engaged in the work. A subsequent blog post will cover the second two bullets.
Our aim with this blog series is to offer practitioners, administrators, researchers, and policymakers a view of what it looks like when a group of real educators commit to re-imagining K–12 mathematics education so it supports all students, particularly Black and Latinx students.
Inequitable access to mathematics content
Across California and the country, students from underserved populations, including Black and Latinx students, tend to be underrepresented in advanced mathematics classes and in majors that require math fluency. EiP participants described addressing the underrepresentation of Black and Latinx students in math as an acute area of need. Specifically, they wanted to change the approaches to mathematics course placement and course sequencing that disproportionately set up young Black and Latinx students for low-level math and science courses in high school.
“In math, there seems to be this sense that if kids don’t have the prerequisite skills, they should not be allowed in courses,” one participant said of their district. “So when a student starts struggling with math in elementary school, they are unlikely to be put into accelerated math in middle school.” The participant described how this early decision can alter a student’s mathematics trajectory, shutting them out of higher level math classes from 6th grade through high school and making it difficult to achieve A–G requirements (which are the minimum course requirements for entrance into California’s public university system).
Even worse, the participant continued, the less challenging classes “are predominantly Black and brown and have all of the ‘lowest achieving’ students enrolled. Expectations for these kids just seem to drop from year to year, and the hope of passing high school Algebra becomes nearly an impossibility.” (Algebra I is considered a “gateway course” because it’s usually the make-or-break element in deciding whether a student can take higher-level math courses in high school and college.)
Other participants described frustration at the way placement decisions are made. “It can be as small as one assessment that can determine your future pathways,” one said. “And if you don’t make it in 7th grade it is practically impossible to ever get into the advanced track.”
Subjective teacher recommendations for course placements were another potential issue, one which participants felt could easily be influenced by adult biases, unconscious or otherwise. “There are persistent ideas that some groups are ‘math people,’” another participant said of teacher recommendations, “despite ongoing work [promoting a growth] mindset for students, families, and educators.” (“Growth mindset” is a popular education framework based on the idea that academic achievement is the result of effort and not intrinsic ability.)
After these early math placement decisions are made, participants reported that their districts have few “on and off ramps,” or points where a student can be moved onto the A-G track for math or can step out for more or different mathematics supports.
Some EiP districts are considering, or already implementing, “de-tracking,” which provides the same mathematics content to all students without accelerated or honors classes. While this practice has shown early promise for some districts, there isn’t yet enough evidence to say whether de-tracking will help more Black and Latinx students complete A-G requirements.
Implicit bias and biased behaviors
We asked EiP participants if and how biased adult behaviors affect Black and Latinx students’ math education. The most common adult behaviors that participants described observing in their systems were:
- Low expectations of Black and Latinx students
- Belief that math ability is intrinsic or not teachable
- Overrepresentation of Black and Latinx students in suspensions and discipline
- Overrepresentation of Black and Latinx students in special education
- Biased classroom teaching (g., which students are chosen to speak, how student ideas and work are positioned by the teachers)
When asked to describe what work their districts were doing to counter these harmful practices, participants mostly described work to challenge unconscious or implicit racial biases. These types of change efforts tend to focus on educators’ belief systems, with the theory that surfacing and changing adults’ biased beliefs will, in turn, change their actions.
Participants did not describe these efforts as having impact on the systemic problems they observed. In fact, many participants shared a sentiment that some of their colleagues were “talking the talk but not walking the walk” — meaning they were discussing beliefs, but not changing their actions toward Black and Latinx students in their classrooms and systems. This finding echoes research that shows that while many people do have implicit racial biases, and that these biases can harm students of color, implicit bias trainings generally do not have meaningful effects on adult behavior.
A path forward
Taken together, these findings and the ongoing work of EiP and similar networks reveal some important takeaways.
In many districts, decisions about math course placement in middle school can have long-lasting and harmful effects on the Black and Latinx students who are often relegated to less challenging math classes. These decisions may be based, sometimes entirely, on the discretion of adults who may be acting on biases, including racial biases. At the same time, the work that districts are doing to counter these biases may not actually be affecting concrete behaviors, such as making less biased course placement decisions. Course placement decisions may also be based on assessments of math at a single point in time that do not capture students’ potential to learn complex math content.
While there’s no silver-bullet solution to these problems, participants in EiP are exploring research-based alternatives to implicit bias training. One approach is piloting teacher-level interventions focused on “empathic instruction” and discipline approaches that have been shown to change teacher behavior and improve student outcomes. Another approach is exploring student-level supports such as self-affirmation, which has been shown to buffer students against the documented negative effects of bias and stereotyping, and to improve academic outcomes. We look forward to sharing learnings from EiP districts as they explore these interventions and continue their equity-focused work.