Pursuing Our Mission to Support All Students at All Ages

By Priscilla Bremser, Contributing Editor, Middlebury College

The more I teach and learn mathematics, the more I regard the subject as a powerful resource that is unfairly distributed. Clearly, I’m not alone. Search for “underrepresented” on the American Mathematical Society website and you’ll find the inclusion/exclusion blog and the Director of Education and Diversity at the AMS, for example. While it is vital to build on the work of exemplary programs at the university level, we cannot fully address the inequities in access to mathematics, and to fields that require mathematics, unless we also examine and address inequities in pre-college education.

Like many colleges and universities in the U.S., Middlebury College, where I teach, has made clear progress toward serving a more diverse student body over the past two or three decades. We’ve come to understand that it’s not enough to admit students with varied backgrounds and experiences; the institution has a duty to support all of its students once they arrive. The higher education community is still figuring out what forms of support are most promising, and some interesting models have emerged. For example, Middlebury is one of many partner institutions with the Posse Foundation, which selects students who “might have been overlooked by traditional college selection processes,” and provides training, mentoring, and peer support networks. The Meyerhoff Scholars Program at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County works with undergraduates interested in pursuing doctorates in science and engineering, and “persistence models” are aimed at reducing high attrition rates of female and underrepresented minority (URM) STEM majors.

Within the college mathematics realm, the Emerging Scholars Program (ESP) was created in the 1970’s at the University of California at Berkeley, and has been adapted at many other institutions [3]. Another program well known for welcoming many students, including women and URM students, is the mathematics department of the State University of New York at Potsdam [1].

Judging from the instantaneous standing ovation after Francis Su spoke of “Mathematics for Human Flourishing” at the Joint Mathematics Meetings in January, I know that at least hundreds of mathematicians are deeply concerned that, as Su said then, “(t)he demographics of the mathematical community does not look like the demographics of America. We have left whole segments out of the benefits of the flourishing available in our profession.” Some of us have tried to address the issue in our own departments by emulating ESP, SUNY Potsdam, and other established programs.  Some of us have taken a close look at our own classrooms and found promise in active learning, given growing evidence of its effectiveness for all students, not just the over-represented, and are heartened by continuing research and development of active learning environments.  Some of us have worked toward justice in undergraduate mathematics in other roles as mentors, administrators, and writers. This work must continue.  We need to broaden and refine our understanding of inclusion on our campuses.

At the same time, it is impossible to ignore the inequities in our students’ K-12 experiences. The evidence is right in front of us, in the form of large variation in the strength of our students’ mathematical backgrounds.  Recently a Middlebury sophomore told me of her AP Calculus class in an urban public school:  everyone in the class scored a 1 or a 2 on the exam, which is typical for that school. This simply would not happen, for example, at the public high school I attended, which now offers AB Calculus, BC Calculus, and Multivariable Calculus. Because public education in this country is, in large part, funded locally, students in high-poverty districts face constraints that their peers in wealthy suburbs do not. Some rural school districts are unable to keep qualified teachers, for example. Evidence suggests that teacher turnover is higher in less affluent communities, with more negative results. I have come to realize that we can’t expect to close, in four years, gaps that have been growing for twelve years or more. Later in this post, I explore some of the ways mathematicians are engaged in addressing those gaps at the pre-college level, and welcome additions to that list.

First, let’s examine the problem a bit more closely. For example, we know that mathematics is an important part of preschool education.  We also know that access to high-quality preschool programs is unevenly distributed; in fact, a startling percentage of 3- to 5-year-olds in the U.S. don’t attend preschool at all, and that those children are disproportionately from low-income families. Thus the educational disparities correlated with economic inequality start before kindergarten.

The challenge is not simply one of poverty, though. It’s impossible to talk about inequity in our pre-college educational system without considering race.  A “Dear Colleague” letter from an officer at the U.S. Department of Education in 2014 offers ample evidence that

(c)hronic and widespread racial disparities in access to rigorous courses, academic programs, and extracurricular activities; stable workforces of effective teachers, leaders, and support staff; safe and appropriate school buildings and facilities; and modern technology and high-quality instructional materials … hinder the education of students of color today.

Meanwhile racial segregation in schools persists. Nikole Hannah-Jones has documented this phenomenon in extensive work that recently earned her a MacArthur Genius Grant. This fact, together with continuing confirmation that separate is not equal [2], is a reminder that inequities are deeply entrenched. I struggle with these disheartening realities, but end up in favor of doing something rather than doing nothing. We in the mathematics community have specific expertise and resources to offer. The challenge, of course, is figuring out how to put them to good use.

Professors of mathematics searching for ways to take on educational disparities in schools have several models to follow. The National Association of Math Circles has been working to provide more support for Math Circles that serve URM students.  The Navajo Math Circle project is one inspiring example (if you haven’t seen the film, do!), and Math CEO at the University of California, Irvine is another. For an example of a program designed to intervene early and support students over time, consider Bridge to Enter Advanced Mathematics (BEAM), whose mission is to “create pathways for underserved students to become scientists, mathematicians, engineers, and computer scientists.”

Another option is working with practicing teachers. There are Math Teachers’ Circles,for example. My interest in K-12 education led me to working with practicing teachers in a master’s degree program, and many of our colleagues do similar work.  The Benjamin Banneker Association, an affiliate with the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, supports teachers of African-American students.

Finally, mathematicians at various colleges and universities teach mathematics to future teachers. We should recognize the importance of this work, and reconsider the diminished status it has in some quarters. We should also honor those who weave equity considerations into their classes for future mathematics educators.

Please let me know what I’ve missed! My co-editors Ben Braun and Diana White suggested some of the examples above; I know there are more.  Mathematicians in higher education and industry are not always experts in preschool, elementary, or secondary education, but the current situation calls us to supporting roles in the pursuit of equity. Have you, or people you know, taken on such roles in promising new ways? Comment below, or send me an email. I look forward to hearing from you.


[1] Hersh, Reuben. “The Best Undergraduate Math Program You’ve Never Heard Of.” Math Horizons 17, no. 3 (2010): 18-21.

[2] Mickelson, Roslyn Arlin, Martha Cecilia Bottia, and Richard Lambert. “Effects of school racial composition on K–12 mathematics outcomes: A metaregression analysis.” Review of Educational Research 83, no. 1 (2013): 121-158.

[3] Murphy, Teri J., and Uri Treisman. “Supporting high achievement in introductory mathematics courses: What we have learned from 30 years of the Emerging Scholars Program.” Making the connection: Research and teaching in undergraduate mathematics education 18, no. 73 (2008): 205.


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