Resolving US Math Education’s Equity vs Excellence Conflict

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In a Policy Forum, Alan Schoenfeld and Phil Daro argue that the “equity versus excellence” controversy over how mathematics is taught has long disrupted education in the United States, particularly for underrepresented ethnic and socioeconomic groups. According to Schoenfeld and Daro, K-12 mathematics education in the U.S. is structured in ways that are problematic and do not reflect international trends. For more than 50 years, the typical yet rigid sequence of hierarchical mathematics courses – algebra 1 to geometry to algebra II to precalculus to calculus – has disenfranchised large numbers of students, including a disproportionate number from underrepresented groups. This has led to a false equity versus excellence dichotomy amongst educators and tensions between groups over math curricula and instruction. It’s thought by some that serving the vast majority of students means diluting the content of instruction and limiting the potential of students ultimately pursuing higher education in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields. Here, the authors discuss this issue and suggest that curricular modularity – through which all students can engage in the same high-quality mathematics content together – can help resolve this false dichotomy and end the so-called pedagogical “math wars” between educators and education policy-makers. Schoenfeld and Daro propose an alternative curricular approach based on the concept of modularity, offering three instructional principles. First, curricula should be designed to preserve mathematical pathways and possibilities for all students for as long as possible, regardless of whether they are STEM- or non-STEM-oriented. Second, curricula should be flexible and evolve to reflect new technologies, ideas, and understandings. Third, courses should be suitable for the students required to take them and should provide a robust foundation for later courses. “The ideas embodied by three principles discussed here could be a starting place for breaking out of false dilemmas,” write the authors. “Engaging in academic or political warfare wastes a huge amount of energy that we can ill afford to squander, if we really want to provide richer and more-meaningful learning opportunities for children.”

For reporters interested in topics of research integrity, when asked about the topic, Alan Schoenfed responded, “We are not aware of issues of data integrity in mathematics education. The larger issue is that of theoretical bias: if you frame issues in different ways, you get different data and draw different conclusions. For example, do you examine the impact of an educational intervention by using a test of basic skills or a test that includes skills, concepts, and problem solving? Tests that only focus on skills will fail to capture the impact of interventions that enhance conceptual understanding and problem solving, while tests that address skills, concepts, and problem solving will reveal the inadequacy of skills-focused approaches. Such arguments were at the heart of the original “math wars,” which we refer to in our piece.”

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