New Math Toolkit Aims to Enhance Equity in Math Instruction, Prepare Students for a World Where Numbers Matter

74 contributor Conor Williams cites Axios reporter Jonathan Swan’s August interview with President Donald Trump where Swan insisted that the president’s way of presenting statistics on the pandemic was misleading as an example of the importance of math fluency. (Screenshot / HBO / YouTube)

In the grimmest possible way, it’s been a bumper year for numbers. The COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent social, political, and economic crises it’s sparking are producing big, messy troves of shifting information. As a national community, we’re facing immense collective perils, and it’s been difficult to sift through the data to separate real dangers from distractions and truths from lies.

Now, more than ever, it’s clear that comfort and facility with numbers — numeracy — is a bedrock skill for citizens in a democracy. Do we need better civics instruction in our polarized country? Yes. Do we need to prepare future citizens to be strong, perceptive, critical readers? Of course. But these are inadequate for the work of fully participating in modern democracy, where mathematical skills are regularly critical for interpreting rhetorical spin on matters of grave political importance — like public health, for example.

Unfortunately, like essentially every important element of the U.S. education system, access to high-quality, high-rigor math instruction is deeply inequitable. Children of color, low-income children, and English-learning students frequently face systemic opportunity gaps that prevent them from fully developing critical math skills. Biases against students of color and their families often produce low academic expectations and narrow, ineffective instruction. Educators’ assumptions about the interactions between language learning and academic development frequently limit English learners’ access to the full range of mathematical instruction in their schools.

This summer, to address these critical gaps, The Education Trust-West convened a number of educators, researchers (including me), and advocates to develop a Math Equity Toolkit. The toolkit, which was published Sept. 9, includes resources to help math teachers develop lessons and activities that foster math learning and English language development. It also contains a workbook to help teachers dismantle anti-racist mindsets and behaviors in their schools and classrooms. There are resources for scaffolding lessons, supporting social and emotional learning in math classrooms, and much more.

The English learners portion of the toolkit identifies priority math content that is central to 6th-, 7th-, and 8th-grade success, and then provides teachers with examples of how to use that content to equitably facilitate students’ language development. For instance, the toolkit spotlights a 6th-grade math standard that requires students to understand and use ratios “to describe a … relationship between two quantities.” It provides examples for how teachers can use ratio lessons to foster English learners’ language development and flags common ways that students may misunderstand key concepts.

In a moment when basic scientific data on the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic — and how to stop it — are surprisingly controversial, math skills are basic tools for holding those in power accountable. And, given COVID-19’s disproportionate impacts on communities of color, math skills can also be critical tools of self-defense.

During an August interview, President Trump claimed that his administration’s pandemic response had been successful, on the grounds that just 3.3 percent of Americans who contract COVID-19 had died at that point (compared with higher rates in other countries). The interviewer, Axios’s Jonathan Swan, insisted that this was a misleading way of talking about the pandemic, noting that there had been 48 COVID-related deaths for every 100,000 Americans (that number was up to 73 COVID-related deaths per 100,000 Americans as of Nov. 11). This ranks the United States as one of the worst-hit countries in the world.

Both stats are true, insofar as they’re accurate calculations. But that’s not the same as determining which better captures our national pandemic context and how it ought to influence how each of us should think about and respond to COVID-19 in our daily lives tomorrow.

That consideration requires some ability to evaluate and contextualize statistical information. It requires awareness that each of these percentages is a ratio — deaths over cases or deaths over population. It requires an inquisitive mind that interrogates the data sources behind each of those variables: are the case numbers accurate? Are there other data, measurements, or context that we could use to get a clearer picture of these two pandemic stats? It requires, in sum, a brain that’s comfortable with mathematical reasoning.

Democracy dies in darkness,” proclaims The Washington Post’s masthead. In our precarious present, American democracy desperately needs better public engagement with — and evaluation of — information. Facts matter. The truth matters. Thoughtful, and responsible engagement with data matters. And if today’s students are to have any hope of taking up the mantle of collective self-governance in the future, schools must prepare them — all of them — to do better with that task than our national leadership.

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