Historically, underserved communities of Black and Latino students experiencing poverty underperform in mathematics as measured by various academic indicators. The emergence of the coronavirus pandemic exacerbated this phenomenon, impacting teaching and learning for all students, especially students from underserved communities. Overnight, the modality of remote learning became necessary, and these underserved communities encountered the most difficulties. There is no doubt that nearly two years of remote learning resulted in the loss of learning in all disciplines, particularly in mathematics.
It is not difficult to understand why underserved communities were affected the most. Different learning experiences for students living in poverty, as compared to those that do not live in poverty, reveal factors that are often outside of the student’s control. Families with social and economic capital tend to provide their children with more educational tools and opportunities, including enrichment activities, access to technology and familiarity with the learning process. These are solutions that often provide students with the opportunity to learn at their own pace or receive extra help to catch up to the rest of the class. Black and Latino students living in poverty have been systemically affected by factors not related to their families but rather their schools.
One of the most insidious causes for the difference in achievement is a stubborn culture of low expectations by the adults in their schools. One example is “tracking” or “grouping” students by their perceived ability, a good-intentioned practice that can result in underestimating student potential and providing fewer opportunities to experience grade-level, challenging mathematics. We know that students learn mathematics best when they are exposed to cognitively demanding mathematical ideas while being allowed to experience a “productive struggle” with appropriate support. Yet, some math teachers, eager to help a struggling student at the first sight of frustration, deprive the learner of a productive struggle. Students should be supported, but effective support occurs when a student’s struggle takes place within the Zone of Proximal Development, and students are provided with the tools to meet the challenges which learning presents.
Another cause for the achievement gap is that Black and Latino students experiencing poverty are more likely to have teachers with weaker mathematical backgrounds. Simply put, we cannot teach what we do not know or understand. A shallow understanding of the discipline and poor teaching practices provide a vastly different (and inferior) learning experience. It takes content knowledge to design a learning experience where students make connections among different mathematical ideas and to determine which significant features of the math topics should be emphasized while de-emphasizing others. It takes content knowledge to evaluate and select effective curriculum materials. Teachers with weak math backgrounds are more likely to teach math as a bundle of discrete, disconnected ideas and dwell on less critical features.
Although there are many causes for the achievement gap, one merits special scrutiny. Black and Latino students are more likely to experience mathematical learning that focuses on procedural knowledge and rote rehearsal. Procedural knowledge in the absence of conceptual understanding is meaningless and forgettable. This is not to say that procedural fluency is not important. However, when students acquire procedural fluency through exploration and investigation, conceptual understanding develops, leading to more retention of procedures.
Fortunately, developing procedural knowledge is an area where technology can help. There are technological tools and companies that provide software and video lessons with the expertise to allow for a metacognitive approach to learning, which can support the learner when needed. Technology can free valuable instructional time, allowing teachers to focus on helping students develop intuitions about which procedures are more appropriate, which are most productive and what results should be expected. One such program, CollegeReadyMath, provides supplemental math support for middle school, high school and college students to improve their algebra skills while also providing supplemental support to teachers. In the case of CollegeReadyMath, their programs are customized learning paths meeting each student where they are in their algebra path.
While equity and access in math education have received much attention lately, in part because of the pandemic, it is worth noticing that equality of opportunity is often conflated with equality of outcome. Although the two go hand-in-hand, it might be beneficial to explore their distinctions because there are nuances that command attention to better identify potential solutions. While it makes sense that more opportunities should lead to better outcomes, this is not always the case. However, working towards equity and access is of paramount importance. It can begin with three immediate actions:
- Cultivate a belief among all adults that ALL students can succeed.
- Ensure access to quality curriculum materials.
- Provide effective intervention programs that tap into technology and other resources.
An intervention program that addresses learning difficulties as they develop can make all the difference for students who need more support. These supplemental programs are innovative math tools that help underserved students embed essential algebra concepts visually to develop a deep understanding of foundational algebra.
Today, we live in a time when technology offers students the potential of unlimited support. These tools provide students with the flexibility to access them at any time, on their own or with their peers. Concise videos coupled with a study guide, such as CollegeReadyMath provides, can promote students’ self-regulation, procedural fluency, conceptual understanding and academic language development. Developing student agency and a metacognitive approach to learning mathematics is a win-win for both students and educators, unlocking student potential and shifting teachers into thinking companions rather than just imparters of knowledge.