Narrowing the Opportunity Gap: Culturally Relevant Education

by Charles Munter

A persistent challenge in school districts across the United States is ensuring that education is equitable in areas such as district policies, cultural awareness, math instruction, and assessments. As a way of defining and framing the problem, educators and policymakers often reference the achievement gap between racial and/or economic subgroups as evidence of inequities as well as differences in rates of graduation, enrollment in upper- level courses, and entrance to and choice of major in college. By these metrics, mathematics has been an area of particular concern, as differences often are larger than in those other subjects.
In a recently initiated project, titled Designing for Equity by Thinking In and About Mathematics (DEBT-M), researchers and district leaders in the Pittsburgh Public Schools are attempting to reframe the problem and make progress in solving it. I am collaborating with colleagues from the Education Development Center Inc.; Pittsburgh Public Schools; Carnegie Mellon University; Duquesne University; and Pitt’s Center for Urban Education on a longitudinal study funded by a National Science Foundation Math and Science Partnership award. Following recent perspectives in education research, our team views the problem as more of an opportunity gap and is working to enact policies and practices that will ensure that all students have access to high-quality learning opportunities in spaces in which they feel they belong—where their racial, gender, and other identities are affirmed and strengthened.
The project’s origins are rooted in the idea of the researcher- practitioner partnership, meaning that we are working toward solving a local problem as well as helping the broader field to understand and support similar endeavors. Rather than adopting new programs or policies, we are looking within the discipline of mathematics, within teachers’ instructional practices, and within current district policies—with a commitment to maximizing the potential of what is already in place but also to identifying and disrupting structures or policies that act as obstacles to equity.
Often, mathematics is introduced in schools with a focus on learning procedures to solve problems and produce solutions, the correctness of which is judged by the teacher. This does not resemble the nature of professional mathematicians’ activity, which includes posing questions, generating conjectures, making sense of phenomena mathematically, and developing and communicating arguments. By engaging with teachers in more authentic mathematical work, it is hoped that our project will redefine the role that teachers and students play in a mathematics classroom, providing more opportunities for student voice and participation.
Through this disciplinary focus, this project also hopes to create a space for thinking about equity as it relates to mathematics. Of particular interest is the notion of cultural relevance, which requires building from and linking to students’ cultural practices, prior knowledge, and life experiences—ideas that are not typically associated with mathematics. Math often is viewed as “acultural” and a subject in which one’s ideas are either right or wrong, with little ambiguity or room for subjectivity. But such views can ignore much of the richness of mathematics, from its long, cross- cultural history to its potential for innovation and social change. And, in schools, such views can lead to delineating the mathematical haves from the have-nots and to fast-tracking some students while shutting others out. By thinking about ways in which mathematics and math education intersect with race and culture, the DEBT-M project aims to disrupt such views and to identify ways to mathematically empower more students.
By engaging with teachers in more authentic mathematical work, it is hoped that our project will redefine the role that teachers and students play in a mathematics classroom, providing more opportunities for student voice and participation.
As a key initiative in Pittsburgh Public School’s recent overarching Whole Child, Whole Community plan, up to 80 PPS secondary education (grades 6–12) teachers are participating in multiple two-year cohorts engaged in four weeks of summer professional development and ongoing school year support. Each summer, the teachers engage in and define authentic mathematics; develop ways of critiquing the system of mathematics education from an equity perspective; and, using that foundation, identify key instructional changes that they would like to make in the upcoming year. During the school year, multiple universities, including Pitt, as well as district personnel will provide in- school support to help the teachers make and continue to refine those changes.
Throughout the project, our research team will investigate how these and other equity-focused efforts interact with current organizational structures, social relationships, and resource materials. The team will collaborate with district leaders to identify ways to enhance the impact of the two-year cohorts, identify obstacles to achieving equity, and work to develop a more generalizable theory of action for closing opportunity gaps in secondary mathematics at scale.
In the end, our team hopes that this research will help to clarify relationships among race and equity, mathematics, learning, and policy that lead to systemic changes in school districts and help to close the opportunity gap for marginalized secondary school mathematics students.