• by Bradley Scott, Ph.D. • IDRA Newsletter • September 2005

Dr. Bradley ScottDieckmann and Montemayor posed the question: Can everyone master mathematics? They commented: “If we hope to develop students as mathematical thinkers, we must abandon the prevailing deficit view that many students cannot master math. Schools can rethink how math is learned and taught to the benefit of all students” (Dieckmann and Montemayor, 2004).

This question also embodies a broader conversation about girls, minorities, and low-income students’ inclusion in rigorous math and science courses and more challenging aspects of technology. The literature reveals a continued achievement gap between these student populations and their counterparts. In spite of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), a force driving public education reform since 2001, this achievement gap has yet to be significantly improved.

Dieckmann and Montemayor further draw attention to questions that must be asked that abandon a student deficit perspective and focus on enriching assets that students already bring and are ready to be mined (2004). They say, “The question for schools changes from ‘Why do they not learn math?’ to ‘How do we teach math?’”

It is noted here that what has been learned about all students’ ability to perform to high standards in math is no less true across other content areas given the right supports for learning. It is possible that an even greater shift in the Dieckmann and Montemayor question is needed. Another question is: How do we teach math and what do we expect? This article addresses that question.

Expectations Drive Results

According to several researchers, we still do not teach math in a way that attracts and sustains minorities and girls in math and science. Low expectations for the success of these students in these disciplines are prevalent. Haycock and the Education Trust noted that they were “stunned” to find in their research “how little is expected of students in high-poverty, high-minority schools” (Haycock, 2001). These students were not given challenging curriculum, they were not given assignments to reinforce learning, and when they were given assignments, they were low-level assignments involving low-level skills. In short, students in high-poverty and high-minority schools, including secondary schools, were neither challenged nor expected to learn.

While Haycock’s research reflected the “lay of the land” at the implementation of the NCLB, Grossman and Ancess still found, even for middle-class minority students who are at the low end of the achievement gap in comparison to their non-minority counterparts, what African American and Latino students reported in interviews, “They were not encouraged to excel and to take honors [higher-level mathematics] classes” (2004). In fact, in one of the districts, the research team found, “Every student [identified as having trouble in math] told a story of a teacher who told them they were not good in math… Researchers concluded that these students had subsequently lived out a self-fulfilling prophecy” (Grossman and Ancess, 2004).

Equity-based Approach Yields Good Results

Andrews and Wilkins are convinced that a new approach to teaching math and science is needed and that the approaches must be equity-based if more minorities and girls are going to enter and remain in the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) pipeline (2001). They examine and report on two equity-based programs, the EAST Project and the Future Scientists and Engineers of America, that are making a difference in attracting and maintaining minorities and girls in STEM.

However, they comment on a larger concern: “The real problem is not with the females and under-represented minorities, but the educational and employment atmosphere that precludes equal access to the science, math, engineering and technology pipeline… The process of educating participating educators and business members while implementing the programs and beginning the dialogue on equity has even more value because it starts the process of systemic change” (Andrews and Wilkins, 2001).

In 2000 when the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics issued the Principles and Standards for Mathematics, it included an equity principle that acknowledged three critical aspects. Equity requires:

  • high expectations and worthwhile opportunities;
  • accommodating differences to help everyone learn mathematics;
  • resources and support for all classrooms and all students (National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, 2000).

Jennings and Likis reported on one school district that embraced these principles as it met its own math achievement crisis (2005). Teachers and administrators in this urban school (grades four through eight) setting confronted a number of questions that helped them identify the real problem. They established three improvement objectives for all students: to become proficient and master grade-level skills and concepts, to improve reading and writing in math word problems and strengthen comprehension in math word problems, and to demonstrate a positive attitude toward math.

The staff undertook the following key strategies to improve math outcomes for students.

  • They ensured that math reached beyond the classrooms by holding math contests outside of the classroom, sending math challenges home to be completed with parents.
  • They hosted math family nights where parents and children did math together in schools in the evenings and on weekends.
  • They created new staff roles, including parent academic liaisons, to solicit parent support for math improvement and to partner with parents on improvement activities.
  • They organized math tutoring to improve data-driven math skills in identified students.
  • They created support for teachers through math coaches and math-focused professional development.
  • They created changes by increasing math instructional time, organized flexible grouping for math skills proficiency development, integrated math across the curriculum, and created internal math assessment strategies to monitor math progress more pro-actively (Jennings and Likis, 2005).

When Scott described the Six Goals of Educational Equity, the issues of access and inclusion, treatment, opportunity to learn, and resources to support learning represented four of the six goals (Scott, 2000).

These researchers have clearly shown in their work that the goals of equity can be achieved when that is the expectation. They have provided examples of how school districts can create greater involvement of minorities and girls in math and science. It is possible. There are those who are doing it, and they are realizing impressive results. It does, however, require a different kind of mind set and work – somewhere outside the proverbial box.

The IDRA South Central Collaborative for Equity and the IDRA STAR Center (the regional comprehensive center serving Texas) have created and implemented a Math Smart! professional development program that provides middle school and secondary school teachers with an exciting “out-of-the-box” approach to math instruction integrating technology as a major vehicle for instruction (see Math Smart! institutes). The program has been presented and used by teachers and students in several school districts in Texas. Preliminary results are encouraging and will be explored further in research that is being planned for the Math Smart! institutes:

Teachers are excited to try new strategies when they receive the support they need to implement innovations in math instruction.

  • Students can easily integrate technology to manage their own mastery of high-level math concepts.
  • Students can be an excellent resource for teachers to acquire computer and technology competence when teachers are open and receptive to learning from students.
  • Teachers can make better instructional decisions when they listen to students about how they learn best.
  • Minority students can learn and achieve in math when they are expected to.

School districts interested in exploring the Math Smart! institutes as a way to answer their own local response to the question, How do we teach math and what do we expect?, can contact the IDRA South Central Collaborative for Equity (210-444-1710; feedback@idra.org; www.idra.org).


Andrews, C.L., and L. Wilkins. Aiming at Systemic Change by Addressing Equity Head On (Maui, Hawaii: Women in Technology Project, Maui Economic Development Board, Inc., 2001). http://www.womenintech.com/about_ research/WEPANJournal10.pdf.

Dieckmann, J., and A.M. Montemayor. “Can Everyone Master Mathematics?” IDRA Newsletter (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, September 2004).

Grossman, F.D., and J. Ancess. “Narrowing the Gap in Affluent Schools,” Educational Leadership (Washington, D.C.: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 2004) Volume 62, No.3.

Hambrick, A. Remembering the Child: On Equity and Inclusion in Mathematics and Science Classrooms (Naperville, Ill.: North Central Regional Laboratory, 2004).

Haycock, K. “Closing the Achievement Gap,” Educational Leadership (Alexandria, Va.: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, March 2001).

Jennings, L., and L. Likis. “Meeting a Math Achievement Crisis,” Educational Leadership (Alexandria, Va.: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, March 2005).

National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. Principles and Standards for Mathematics (Reston, Va.: NCTM, 2000).

Scott, B. “We Should Not Kid Ourselves: Excellence Requires Equity,” IDRA Newsletter (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, February 2000).

Stigler, J.A., and J. Heibert. “Improving Mathematics Teaching,” Educational Leadership (Alexandria, Va.: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, February, 2004).

Bradley Scott, Ph.D., is a senior education associate in the IDRA Division of Professional Development. Comments and questions may be directed to him via e-mail at feedback@idra.org.

[©2005, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the September 2005 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]