• By Aurelio M. Montemayor, M.Ed. • IDRA Newsletter • May 2007

Prologue: Which Students Can Learn – Algebra

Aurelio M. Montemayor, M.Ed.A parent in a south Texas community brought a letter received from her son’s high school announcing that the school was not meeting adequate yearly progress (AYP) because of math. In a problem-solving conversation, a group of parents wondered if the problem was that the teachers were unprepared or uncertified to teach algebra. But further probing revealed that most of the teachers were in fact certified and seasoned practitioners of mathematics. Instead, they learned of an algebra teacher who stated that most students in the school “do not have the capacity to learn higher math.”


In another example, while conducting a training of trainers session for Eisenhower Grant Scholarship elementary teachers, IDRA was preparing these selected teachers to develop workshops and presentations to extend their knowledge in the teaching of math and science to their campus peers. Upon reviewing some very exciting, participatory and creative plans for presentations in science teaching, the facilitator asked where the parallel workshop plans were for pre-algebra instruction. The response was: “Oh no, we cannot do that for these teachers and students. Algebra is just too abstract!”

Seeing students through these cloudy lenses ensures that few students will ever master algebra. The status quo was proof of prejudice.

All Children Ahead in Math

Math prejudice directly contradicts the premise of “leaving no child behind.” It also presents a critical locus to meet the parent involvement requirements in the law: engaging parents in judging the teaching quality when a school is not meeting AYP.

Math is not too abstract for the so-called masses.

  • See the work lead by Kathryn Brown in IDRA’s Math Smart! institutes for creative answers to that myth (Brown, 2006).
  • Check with Bob Moses’ Algebra Project (Moses and Cobb, 2001; Moses, et al., 1989).
  • View the movie Stand and Deliver (1988), with the caveat that calculus is really for a broader audience than a select number of bypassed and ignored Latino geniuses.

Math is a great litmus test of teaching quality. The parent-useful and friendly assessment is: How well are children learning to use and apply math, algebra and so-called “higher mathematics”?

Parent’s Math Teaching Skills? Not in This Approach

Before we explore some questions parents can ask, let us be clear about the domain we are working in. Parenting training is a broad aspect of working with parents, targeted to improving parent’s skills in bringing up and educating their children. Within this domain, the math-teaching-quality conversation would shift to the parent as math teacher. There is a large body of literature that focuses on the literacy of the parent, especially the mother, and points to children’s literacy skills directly flowing from the caretaker’s skills.

Likewise there is a comparable emerging body connecting parents and families and math. In contrast, we are concentrating on those aspects of parent involvement that highlight the parent as resource to the school, as decision makers about the quality of the education of their children, and as leaders in creating schools that work for all children.

Parents as Resources for Quality Math Education

Parents, families and others in the community can inquire without any further preparation than their faith in their children and their desire to have high quality schools. One first thing to check is if the secondary math teachers are prepared and certified to teach their classes. Second, find out whether any of these teachers consider algebra and beyond as appropriate only for a select few students. If a major block is the lack of resources to hire sufficient, highly qualified teachers, parents are a powerful ally to administrators whose pleas for added resources are not being heard.

At the elementary level, first find out if any teacher is mouthing some version of “ I was never good in math.” Then ask the principal how that lack is being made up for. Are the best and brightest teachers in math accessing the children whose classroom teachers admit to limitations in that area?
A parent does not need to know the content, the language of instruction or effective teaching pedagogy to judge whether children are learning and succeeding.

What is the Question?

Ask students: “What helps you learn math?” and “What blocks you from learning math?”

Ask teachers: “Do you think all children can learn math?,” “What do you do if students don’t learn math with the way you are currently teaching?,” and “How do you change your teaching to engage the students that are not mastering the required skills?”

Ask principals, “What are you doing to encourage the modification of the curriculum and the teaching approaches so that all children are learning?” and “How are tutoring and other supplementary educational services helping to engage students and support their academic success?”

See the following suggestions from “10 Tips for Parents Who Choose to Stay Put” (KSA-Plus Communications, nd).

  • “Get extra help for your child. If the school fails to meet its learning goals for three straight years, your child is eligible for additional academic help, such as afterschool tutoring, paid for by the federal government. Some schools offer extra help after the second year to keep parents in the school. You can press your school to do this. Check to see what extra help your school is providing. Often this support is provided by community organizations, such as a local YMCA, library, or Boys and Girls Club.”
  • “Make sure the school’s improvement plan focuses on areas where the school is not doing well. All schools now have to publish annual report cards, showing how all students are doing in reading and math. If the data show that math scores are low, for instance, you’ll want to make sure that the school’s improvement plan has steps for strengthening the math program. Maybe the school will spend more time on math during the school day, create an after-school program to help struggling students, improve staff training for teachers and so on. These annual report cards also need to describe how different groups of students are performing. For instance, if low-income students are lagging, the school improvement plan should describe what will be done to help those students. Start by asking if all classes offer high quality teaching and a challenging curriculum so that all children will meet the standards.”

Also see below for sample surveys one community is using.

Epilogue: Parents as Advocates and Catalysts for Quality Teaching

There are many more questions that laypersons can ask of educators (As A Parent, Here are 12 Things You Should Know about and Expect From Your Schools… and Yourself, KSA-Plus Communications, nd). None of these require that the inquirer be an expert in mathematics or teaching. The answers will cause the educator to rethink and come up with better ways to support academic success for all children: truly high quality teaching for all students.

See sample surveys in Parents and Students Examine Math Curriculum and Instruction at their High School


Brown, K. “Applying Math to Children’s Lives,” IDRA Newsletter (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, March 2006).

Brown, K. “Re-Invigorating Math Curricula,” IDRA Newsletter (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, April 2006).

Internet Movie Database, Inc. “Plot Summary for Stand and Deliver (1988)” http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0094027/plotsummary.

KSA-Plus Communications. 10 Tips for Parents Who Choose to Stay Put (Lexington, Ken.: Center for Parent Leadership at the Pritchard Committee, no date) https://www.bridges4kids.org/articles/2004/11-04/pla_ten.pdf.

KSA-Plus Communications. As A Parent, Here are 12 Things You Should Know about and Expect From Your Schools… and Yourself (Lexington, Ken.: Center for Parent Leadership at the Pritchard Committee, no date).

Moses, R., and C. Cobb. Radical Equations: Math Literacy and Civil Rights (Boston: Beacon Press, 2001).

Moses, R., and M. Kamii, S. Swap, J. Howard. (1989). The Algebra Project: Organizing in the Spirit of Ella (Waltham, Mass.: Civic Practices Network) http://theweiser.com/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/Moses-et-al.-1989-The-Algebra-Project_HER.pdf.

Aurelio M. Montemayor, M.Ed, is an IDRA senior education associate and director of the Texas IDRA Parent Information and Resource Center. He also serves on the national board of PTA. Comments and questions may be directed to him via e-mail at feedback@idra.org.

[©2007, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the May 2007 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.]