[Kyndall Brown] Access, Equity, and the Standards for Mathematical Practice

Kyndall Brown deserves credit for bravery. He opened up CMC-North 2012 on a controversial note, tackling race and equity in math education and allowing an enormous amount of participation and interjection from his audience.

His top-level point was that the Standards of Mathematical Practice, if implemented with fidelity, lead directly to access and equity for underserved populations. As he involved his audience in making that point, it became clear that the teachers of CMC-North are all over the map when it comes to their beliefs about and proposed solutions for inequitable access to a good math education.

First, he established his credentials (African-American male, raised in Los Angeles, taught in Compton, passionate about extending access); he established a mandate for equity (referring to NCTM and NCSM’s equity principles); he established a lack of equity (referring to data drawn from California’s Basic Educational Data System showing lower quantities of advanced and proficient minority math students).

He asked us, “What are the reasons for that inequity?” and the crowd’s answers varied. The first participant suggested that a math education wasn’t valued by those minority populations. Another participant suggested the language of our tests leads to inequity. Another suggested that parental background played a role in perpetuating inequity. Still another suggested that Asian populations score so well on these tests because Asian parents berate their students if they achieve only modest results. Some of these suggestions are, of course, baseless and highly counterproductive. Brown didn’t confront any of them directly and referred, instead, to a federal 2007 report that attributed the inequity in districts with high minority populations to their:

  • high class size,
  • low availability of advanced math classes, and
  • low access to quality math teachers.

He illustrated and confirmed each of those inequities with data displays.

So basically, the crowd whiffed it, and we should all take a second and feel humbled by that.

He drew from Haberman’s “Pedagogy of Poverty” (1991) which revealed that the dominant pedagogical practices in urban schools include:

  • giving information
  • asking questions
  • reviewing tests
  • settling disputes
  • punishing noncompliance
  • giving grades
  • marking papers

Which is nothing like what you find in the Standards of Mathematical Practice. As an introduction to “culturally relevant pedagogy” (Brown’s proposed solution) he pulled an urban district’s assessment:

It costs $1.50 each way to ride the bus between home and work. A weekly pass is sixteen dollars. Which is the better deal, paying the daily fare or buying the weekly pass?

The assessment graders said that African-American students had “strange” answer patterns. The graders assumed a five-day work week with a single trip to work and a single trip home, which would recommend not buying the weekly pass. But African-American students knew their parents worked more than five days in a week and also assumed the bus pass would be shared between family members, which would highly recommend the weekly pass.

So Brown asked us to define “culturally relevant pedagogy” in the math classroom. The audience’s responses, again, were unpredictable and occasionally troubling.

  • “Ask students to explain their thinking.”
  • “Tie a song that students like to formulas they have to memorize.”
  • “Ask them to make up their own problems.”
  • “Create contextualized problems that students are truly interested in solving.”
  • “Create real-world problems, but not just, ‘My students like basketball so I’ll do a problem about basketball.'”

A teacher expanded on that last suggestion rather artfully, saying that our attempts at creating real-world math problems can “lead to the essentialization of our students, boiling black people down to basketball and Mexicans down to soccer.”

To the question, “Isn’t this just good teaching for any student group?” a participant responded that “culture” isn’t the same as “ethnicity,” implying (I think) that “culturally relevant pedagogy” is important even if you’re teaching a bunch of white kids.

Brown then answered his own question by drawing from research, Delpit’s in particular. In culturally relevant classrooms, students feel “academic press” where the content is made clear and there are high expectations. Students are held accountable for their performance and given assistance in their achievement. There are social supports and strong social relationships. Students can build confidence and feel psychologically safe. They feel they can take risks, ask for help, admit errors, and experience failures.

Brown’s point, again, is that the Standards of Mathematical Practice, if implemented with fidelity, will lead to culturally relevant pedagogy. But as one of my companions said, “That’s a huge ‘if’.”

Brown pointed to the third practice, “Constructing viable arguments.” Brown claimed this practice required students to attend to issues of language, reading, writing, listening, speaking, and making sense of a text. He said it would require collaboration because you have to argue with somebody. This isn’t true, though, in the case of tasks that ask students to respond to the argument of a talking head in a textbook. There’s no one there to negotiate with or talk to.

He said that the fourth practice, “Modeling with mathematics,” required teachers to know their students’ lives, which, again, seems far too pat, given the uncertainty of implementation. Teachers can and will satisfy the modeling practice without knowing anything about their students. There isn’t a guarantee that teachers will ask students to model anything more than the prefabricated contexts in a textbook.

None of this is to reject Brown’s point entirely, rather to say that Brown implied too strong a line between the standards as written on the page and the experiences of minority students in the classroom. In reality, that line is mediated constantly by publishers, assessment authors, and teachers. He laid out a strong mandate with citation after citation but I would have traded a few of those citations for several more examples of faithful and unfaithful implementation, for several more images of what’s possible with the Standards of Mathematical Practice.