Align Your Math Mission to Promote Equity

Goal-oriented professional learning can help dismantle barriers to advanced mathematics learning for all students

Topics: STEM, Equity and Diversity, Professional Learning

Current models of professional learning (PL) haven’t yielded substantial changes in teacher practice or improved student outcomes, particularly for students from marginalized groups. But there are PL experiences that can drive meaningful change in multiple areas, including mathematics education.

According to “Measuring Teacher Professional Learning: Why It’s Hard and What We Can Do About It,” a recent article from the Research Partnership for Professional Learning, the challenges in providing equitable professional learning can be summarized as follows:

Misaligned goals. A prevailing issue in PL is the misalignment of goals between those providing it and those receiving it. Consider a scenario in which a school receives professional learning through a university-​funded grant. While the university’s goals might focus on data collection and research, the primary objective of the recipients (teachers) is to gain practical tips for enhancing content delivery. This disparity often leaves school-based personnel feeling that professional learning is a futile exercise.

Lack of effective measurement tools. Another significant challenge is the absence of practical tools to measure the effectiveness of professional learning initiatives. Schools frequently employ traditional metrics, such as state test scores or standardized progress monitoring tools like MAP or i-Ready. These metrics provide limited data sporadically, failing to offer a comprehensive understanding of progress over time.

The demand for equity and access training. In today’s diverse classrooms, educators are increasingly expressing a need for more opportunities to learn about equity and access. They understand the necessity of addressing the needs of marginalized students and creating inclusive learning environments, but the current professional learning landscape often falls short in providing the knowledge and strategies needed to foster equitable outcomes.

Alternatives That Address the Issues

To usher in a new era of professional learning that genuinely promotes equity and excellence in mathematics education, I propose a multifaceted approach that addresses the challenges listed above and drives transformative change:

Create a mission for the math program. The foundation of effective professional learning is a clear mission statement that articulates the desired outcomes for students. For instance, the mission could be to help students become proficient problem-solvers and critical thinkers, measured by their ability to analyze complex problems and provide
evidence-​based solutions.

Develop a common vision. Craft a shared vision for what success will look like when you achieve the mission. Envision classrooms where all students excel in mathematics, teachers are confident and competent instructors, and learning environments are inclusive and conducive to growth.

Ensure that PL sessions align with your goals. Every professional learning session should align directly with your program’s mission. Each experience should contribute meaningfully to the broader goals of the math program, emphasizing the relevance and impact of its learning.

Promote reflection. Create opportunities for participants to reflect on each PL session and its relevance to the program’s vision. Encourage educators to consider how the knowledge and strategies gained can be effectively applied in their classrooms to foster positive change and promote equity.

Rethink measurement. Shift away from relying solely on tools that narrowly define learning through correct answers to selected response items. If your math program aims to cultivate problem-​solvers and critical thinkers, embrace assessment tools that allow for analysis of student work and discussion. These tools provide insights into student growth over time, as well as educators’ PL progress.

Supporting Grade 5–8 Students in Constructing Explanations in Science: The Claim, Evidence, and Reasoning Framework for Talk and Writing by Katherine McNeill and Joseph Krajcik suggests implementing a problem-​solving rubric that assesses students’ claims, evidence, and reasoning in their work, scoring proficiency levels as “not yet proficient,” “proficient,” and “beyond expectations.”

Center PD on marginalized students. Recognize that achieving equity in mathematics education necessitates placing the needs of marginalized students at the forefront. Offer educators practical strategies that transcend generic discussions on culturally relevant pedagogy. Empower teachers with approaches that enable them to effectively convey content while addressing the distinct needs of students from marginalized communities.

I guide teachers in transforming the math problems in their textbooks into culturally relevant learning experiences, for example. A structured progression starts with tasks that demand cognitive rigor; as educators advance, they transition to second-stage tasks that incorporate meaningful names and third-stage tasks that embed significant contexts. The journey culminates in fourth-stage tasks that ask students to contemplate their roles as agents of change.

This systematic progression not only offers educators accessible entry points for incorporating culturally relevant math tasks, but it also provides clear direction for their growth as they become increasingly comfortable navigating each stage. Culturally relevant pedagogy transitions from a theoretical concept to a practical, feasible approach, making it more accessible and actionable for educators.

Equity as a Lens for Effective Instruction

To align your professional learning with the goals of your mathematics program, you must adopt an equity-​focused perspective. Implementing instructional strategies without addressing the pervasive inequities that stem from years of ignorance, socioeconomic discrimination, and systemic racism won’t yield improved outcomes for marginalized students. Without a deliberate and intentional emphasis on equity and access, well-intentioned educators might inadvertently perpetuate practices that contribute to the achievement gaps we continue to witness today.

Teachers contend with a multitude of demands that can easily become overwhelming. Using equity as a guiding lens for effective instruction offers a structured framework for teachers and educational leaders to reflect on their practices and work toward dismantling the systemic barriers and policies that hinder equitable access to advanced mathematics learning for all students.

The equity lens can serve as a starting point for teachers in creating more equitable mathematics classrooms and provides a practical road map toward that goal. It offers a structured approach to the many instructional decisions teachers must navigate daily. I recommend the adoption of an equity lens that encompasses the following key components:

Building student confidence and competence. Engage in activities that empower students to develop confidence and competence in mathematics while acknowledging and celebrating their unique identities and agency.

Addressing stereotypes. Foster awareness among educators about how harmful stereotypes impact students from diverse backgrounds, and actively work to counteract those stereotypes.

Knowing your students and their communities. Develop a deep understanding of your students, their backgrounds, and the communities they come from. This knowledge can inform instructional decisions and ensure culturally responsive teaching.

Making representation matter. Ensure that students see positive representations of individuals who share their identities in instructional materials to promote a sense of belonging and inclusion.

Building upon prior knowledge. Assess and build upon students’ prior knowledge in ways that reinforce positive mathematics identities, recognizing the value of their unique experiences and insights.

Emphasizing sensemaking. Prioritize sensemaking in mathematics over rote memorization and adherence to set procedures. Encourage students to explore, question, and understand the underlying concepts.

Expecting critical thinking and reasoning. Set high expectations for all students and foster a culture in which critical thinking and reasoning are valued and promoted, regardless of perceived achievement levels. All students have brilliance and should be provided the opportunity to demonstrate that brilliance in the mathematics classroom!

The transformation of professional learning in mathematics education is key to the achievement of equity and excellence. By aligning professional learning with program missions, developing a shared vision, and offering practical strategies for addressing equity and access, we can empower educators to make a profound impact on marginalized students’ learning outcomes.

The ultimate goal is to create a future in which factors such as race, class, ethnicity, gender, and language proficiency no longer predict achievement. The journey toward equitable mathematics education is ongoing, and it begins with the reimagining of professional learning. It’s time to rise to the challenge and drive meaningful change in mathematics education for all.

Pamela A. Seda is president-elect of Benjamin Banneker Association and the founder and CEO of Seda Educational Consulting LLC.