Just Equations Blog: A Tour

Just Equations is a California based project dedicated to advancing math-related policies that give students the quantitative tools they need to advance in college and beyond. The project hopes to achieve this through research and analysis, strategic communications, convening of relevant stakeholders in education, and providing expert advice. It was founded by Pamela Burdman whose recent research has focused on re-thinking the role of mathematics in educational equity. As described in their website,

“Just Equations is a project of Community Partners. We partner with research institutes, equity advocates, educators, and other experts in advancing educational equity across the high school-to-college pipeline. Our foundation supporters sustain our work and deepen our roots.

A growing body of evidence points to the need and potential for redesigned math policies that reduce, rather than reinforce, inequities in K-16 education. At stake is not just math learning, but the broader architecture of opportunity that is shaped by math requirements. When educational requirements are arbitrary, outdated, or unfounded, they create barriers rather than gateways to students’ success.”

I was very excited to see that the project has a blog in which they share insights into the intersections between mathematics, equity, and current events. In this post, I will give a glimpse of some of their more recent posts.

“Deconstructing the Mathematics Industrial Complex”

In this post, they discuss how college math requirements grew in the 1970s along with enrollment. While demographic changes allowed more people of color in higher education it also aligned with the introduction general requirement which in turn led to the increase of remedial courses. In particular, as math departments grew, these courses contributed to racial stratification and prevented students from completing their college degrees.

“At their height about 10 years ago, remedial courses represented more than half of math enrollments at community colleges nationally. These seemingly benign attempts to help students learn math in fact served to prevent millions from progressing toward a college degree: Students placed at the lowest levels of remedial math had less than a 10 percent chance of completing a credit-bearing math course, and even lower chances of earning a college degree. Even students with weak preparation were more likely to complete a required math course if they were actually permitted to enroll in one (rather than a gauntlet of remedial offerings) and given support.”

Opposite to their intention, these courses did not help students succeed in college but rather became gatekeepers. The question becomes, how do we dismantle the built-in inequities?

“Rather than penalizing students for not passing a test of math content they hypothetically might use one day, more colleges are focused on supporting students to learn math that is actually relevant to their aspirations.

To actually reach the goal of educational justice and “re-purpose mathematics as a tool for liberation”, as Just Equations called for in our recent statement, far more must be done, beginning well before students arrive in college. To that end, we are encouraged by the voices of mathematics organizations around the country that are elevating the importance of dismantling the traditional architecture of math opportunity.”

Learning Math Virtually: What’s Essential in Assessment?

As the pandemic continues, this is an extremely relevant post in how we should reconsider what is really essential in assessing students. In the math blogosphere, many conversations have centered on how to prevent students from cheating, facilitate student engagement, and alternatives to testing through “correctness” only. This post emphasizes that both traditional forms of assessment such as standardized testing “often fail to address the uneven playing field that results from racial and socioeconomic disparities” and contributes to a culture of ranking students.  It encourages promoting a growth-oriented approach to learning and provides some suggestions on how to achieve that.

“Under distance learning, an emphasis on “answer getting” makes even less sense, since students can easily turn to calculators or online materials. Therefore, despite the challenging conditions for learning, the pandemic may prove to be fertile ground for cultivating more growth-oriented approaches to assessing mathematics that equity-minded math instructors in schools and colleges are already embracing. These include:

  • Instead of trying to prevent students from “cheating,” design your test (or homework) knowing that students have access to a range of tools and resources. 
  • Provide opportunities for students to improve their grade through feedback and revision, just as they might revise a paper in a composition class. 
  • De-emphasize tests, while emphasizing the multiple ways students have to demonstrate learning during class — including discussions and projects.”

These suggestions, while particularly useful under distance learning, should be considered in our in-person classrooms as a way to refocus student learning around growth. Because in the end, isn’t mathematics more than a snapshot in time?

Promises and Pitfalls of Diverse Math Pathways: Examining Equity in Students’ Course Choices

Traditionally, diversifying math pathways often looks like providing students with a wide variety of choices in how they pursue their math education and to make it more relevant to their goals. In this post, they discuss how new pathways must be rigorous so that they don’t end up diverting students from STEM fields and promoting patterns of inequity. It is not enough to present or create additional options without ensuring there is equitable access to those pathways. In particular, if not all students are equipped or supported to make optimal-decisions about their aspirations, they might be steered from a pathway based on their previous experiences. While some universities are no longer required to offer remedial courses, many still do and can lead to students enrolling in them even if it’s not the optimal choice for them.

“This ignores the way institutional structures (in this case, course offerings) may combine with self-perceptions to steer students’ choices.  Those who have had discouraging experiences in mathematics and were led to believe they are not “math people” may tend to shy away from algebra-intensive math courses, even if they could have succeeded in them. If not carefully implemented, new mathematics pathways could become another such institutional structure, perpetuating patterns of tracking students, especially students of color, out of STEM fields.”

Do you have suggestions of topics or blogs you would like us to consider covering in upcoming posts? Reach out to us in the comments below or let us know on Twitter (@MissVRiveraQ).

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About Vanessa Rivera-Quinones

Mathematics Ph.D. with a passion for telling stories through numbers using mathematical models, data science, science communication, and education. Follow her on Twitter: @VRiveraQPhD.
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