Monday, September 16, 2019

Mathematics and Social Justice: Interview with Dr. Kyndall Brown, Executive Director, California Math Project

Hi everyone! It's my great pleasure to share with you an interview with Dr. Kyndall Brown, California Math Project. The main theme of this interview is Mathematics and social justice.

Please tell us about yourself and your current position and how you became interested in mathematics education.
I am the executive director of the California Mathematics Project. I oversee a statewide network of professional development organizations whose charge is to provide professional and leadership development for k-12 teachers of mathematics. There are 19 sites of CMP that are housed at UC and CSU campuses. We bring together mathematicians, mathematics educators, and classroom teacher leaders to put on institutes, as well as school-based professional development programs. We are supported by state and federal funds. We are mandated to center our work in low-performing schools and district.

I started my teaching career in 1985 at Manual Arts HS in LAUSD. Because I had a BS in mathematics, I was able to receive an emergency credential to teach secondary mathematics. I immediately discovered that I needed some support if I was going to get the hang of teaching. I think this is where my interest in mathematics education began. During the Summer after my first year of teaching, in order to get the units I needed to renew my emergency credential, I attended two CMP institutes; one at UCLA, and one at CSULA.  In the fall of 1986, I entered a credential program at CSUDH, where I had my first courses in educational psychology and learning theory. I became exposed to Jean Piaget’s theory of constructivism, which had a huge impact on my teaching  practice. I always took advantage of professional development opportunities and learned a lot from them. Fast forward to 1994. I was teaching at a high school when a coworker and colleague of mine invited me to apply to attend a Summer leadership institute at the UCLA Mathematics Project. I attended the four-week institute and ended up becoming a teacher leader for the project. I presented workshops and sessions at other UCLAMP leadership institutes. UCLAMP would use me as a professional development provider in some of their fee-for service contracts with schools in LA County. In 1999, was asked to come on full time at UCLAMP as co-director. Several years later, I took over as the director of UCLAMP. In 2012, I became the executive director of the CMP statewide office.

Math instructors may not be aware of the issues related to Mathematics and social justice. Why does equity and inclusion matter?
Equity and inclusion matters because we live in a multi-racial, multicultural, democratic society. In order for a democracy to function, we need an educated electorate. Technology is becoming more ubiquitous. More industries and jobs are becoming automated. Instead of being taught how to perform rote computations with speed and accuracy, students need to learn how to become critical problem solvers

Education needs to keep up with the trends in the larger society.  The Partnership for 21st Century Learning (P21) has created a framework that describes the skills learners will need to be successful in the 21st century.

P21 states that 21st century  learners must:
  • Learn from and working collaboratively with individuals representing diverse cultures, religions, and lifestyles in a spirit of mutual respect and open dialogue in personal, work, and community contexts
  • Be open and responsive to new and diverse perspectives; incorporate group input and feedback into the work
  • Communicate effectively in diverse environments (including multi-lingual)
  • Demonstrate ability to work effectively and respectfully with diverse teams
  • Respect cultural differences and work effectively with people from a range of social and cultural backgrounds.
  • These skills can and should be incorporated into all mathematics instruction K-12.
If we choose to not educate all of the people in our society, then we will perpetuate a caste system based largely on race and socio-economic status. When people do not have access to a quality education, they are usually relegated to low-income employment, and are more likely to get caught up in cycles of poverty and the criminal justice system.There is a shortage of people qualified to fill some of the most important jobs like nurses, doctors, engineers, architects, as well as skilled trades like electricians, carpenters, machinists, welders, mechanics, and plumbers. We cannot continue to progress and a society if we do not have people to do these important jobs.

Dr. Robert Moses was a voting rights activist during the Civil Right Movement in the 1950’s and 60’s. Dr. Moses’ work in the southern US was focused on increasing the literacy of African-American share croppers so that they could gain the right to vote. In the 1980’s, Dr. Moses recognized that, similar to the civil rights movement in the 60’s, too many African-American students were mathematically illiterate. He recognized that lack of access to algebra would cause African-American students to be left out of the technological careers of the 21st century. For this reason, he created the Algebra Project curriculum. The Algebra Project curriculum is a hands-on, culturally relevant curriculum that uses real-world context to teach Algebra concepts. (Radical Equations: Civil Rights from Mississippi to the Algebra Project, R. P. Moses, 2002, Beacon Press)

Tell us about the work you are doing related to mathematics and social justice. 
My work on mathematics and social justice is an outgrowth of my long-term interest in equity and access in mathematics. I have always taught in either low-performing schools, or schools that had large numbers of students who were low-achieving. I have always believed that it is my job to make sure that even the lowest achieving had access to high quality mathematics instruction. When I began associating with UCLAMP, I was pleased to see their emphasis on access and equity. Those early discussions naturally led into culturally relevant and responsive pedagogy. In 2005, Rethinking Mathematics: Social Justice by the Numbers was published. The book had a number of social justice lessons that  I began to use in professional development, as well as mathematics methods courses. Since then, a number of books have been published on the topic of social justice and mathematics education. In 2016, TODOS:Mathematics for All, and NCSM published a joint position statement on Mathematics through the lens of Social Justice. I have been using that document in a number of different professional development workshops and keynotes. For the past two years, I have co-presented a pre-conference workshop on Social Justice and Mathematics  for NCTM. I also co-facilitated a two-day institute on Social Justice and Mathematics in the LA area in 2017. I have also created social justice lessons. The is a bi-annual conference entitled Creating Balance in an Unjust World that focuses on social justice and mathematics.

Are mathematics classrooms inclusive, equitable? Why or why not?
In general, no. Mathematics classes still tend to engage in tracking. Mathematics classes are still very teacher centered. Only students in advanced mathematics classes have opportunities to engage in high level, cognitively demanding mathematics. Too many students are exposed to mathematics instruction that is based upon rote memorization and drill-and-practice. Their are huge achievement/opportunity gaps in mathematics performance that are based upon race and class. Low-income students of color are usually concentrated in the lower-level classes, while affluent white and Asian students are more likely to be found enrolled in advanced mathematics courses. This is exacerbated by a lack of qualified teachers of mathematics that results in low-performing schools facing shortages of qualified mathematics teachers and limited course offerings.

Why are tracking and teacher-centered instruction problematic?
There have been education scholars that have been study the ill-effects of tracking for years (Jeannie Oaks). Tracking labels some students as mathematically capable and others as not capable. These labels are usually based upon standardized test scores or other types of assessments and are not very valid or reliable.

Dr. Lee Stiff worked with a school district in North Carolina that was concerned that their African American students were not enrolled in 8th grade algebra. After learning the admission policy for algebra one, Stiff identified a large number of African American students who met the admission criteria, but had not been admitted to algebra one. After the qualified students were identified, they were properly placed in algebra one, and all of them passed. The situation has become so dire in California, that in 2015 the state legislature passed a law that schools have to make their mathematics placement criteria public and create a plan to inform all parents of the  placement criteria.
San Francisco Unified School District took the bold step a few yeas ago to eliminate all tracking in mathematics. The district eliminated acceleration in middle school and require all students to enroll in algebra in the ninth grade. Acceleration cannot occur until after the students have taken geometry.
For example, in the elementary grades, students are required to complete timed tests, where they have to complete 100 multiplication problems in one minute. These types of assessments send the message that mathematics is about speed and accuracy as opposed to critical thinking and problem solving.
Once a student gets tracked, it is virtually impossible for them to get out of the track they have been placed into. This can impact whether or not students will ever have access to college preparatory mathematics when they get to high school, which will impact whether or not they can get into college, and what they can study when they get there.

Teacher-centered instruction is a philosophy of teaching that dominates mathematics instruction in the US at all levels. A teacher-centered classroom assumes that students come to the learning environment as empty vessels to be filled with the wisdom and knowledge of the teachers. Teachers provide a lecture to students where they passively take notes. The teacher demonstrates how to work mathematical exercises. Students repeat the procedures shown to them by the teacher. Students are given several mathematical exercises to practice on their own. Students are given a few dozen mathematical exercises to complete as homework. Teachers don’t find out what students understand until they assess them with a quiz or test. Education researchers refer to this method of teaching as Initiate-Response-Evaluation (IRE). This method of teaching works for a very few students.
A student centered approach to teaching is one that connects mathematics content to student’s prior knowledge. Students are given high level, cognitively demanding mathematical tasks to solve. Students are allowed to work together in groups to solve problems. Teachers support students by asking probing questions to push their thinking. Teachers provide instruction when students need it in order to solve problems. Students are provided with the tools and technology necessary to engage in complex mathematical tasks. Teachers use a variety of strategies to assess student understanding beyond paper and pencil tests.  This method of teaching opens up opportunities for all students to be successful in the mathematics classroom.

What can math teachers do to make progress?
There are examples of schools and districts that have had success in creating more equitable environments for students.

San Lorenzo HS in northern CA, Core Principles
  • All teachers and students are learners
  • Working from strengths while making space for vulnerability
  • Redefining “smart”
  • Redefining what it means to do math in school
  • The importance of relationships
  • Department Goals
  • Detracking 8th Grade Mathematics and  Algebra I
  • Creating a reform-based curriculum that supported Complex Instruction pedagogy
  • Reducing rates of D/F grades
  • Understanding the needs and experiences of African-American students
  • Responding to the challenges of  standardized tests
  • At the start of 9th grade, San Lorenzo students were scoring at significantly lower levels than the students at the  2  comparison schools
  • Within 2 years, Railside students were significantly outperforming students at the other schools
  • San Lorenzo students were more positive about mathematics, took more mathematics, and planned to pursue mathematics in college
  • Achievement differences among different ethnic groups were reduced or eliminated
  • By their senior year, 41% of San Lorenzo students were taking advanced courses compared to 27% of students at the other schools
  • A few years ago San Francisco Unified School District detracked their mathematics program as well.

What can parents do?
  • Play games that involve mathematics (e.g. card games, dice games, dominoes, puzzles, etc.) 
  • Share with their children how they use mathematics in their work and home lives. S
  • peak positively about mathematics. 
  • Get involved at school. Meet their children’s mathematics teachers. 
  • Have their children explain the solutions to their mathematics problems from school. 
  • Advocate for high quality mathematics instruction at school. 
  • Read “Mathematical Mindsets” by Jo Boaler, Stanford University

How can administrators support these efforts?
Be knowledgeable of the California Framework and standards. Know what high quality mathematics instruction looks like. Visit mathematics classrooms and provide guidance and feedback to teachers (SERP 5X8 card[b]). Provide time for mathematics teachers to collaborate, visit each others classrooms, evaluate student work together.

How can college math instructors get involved?
College math instructors can get involved in several ways.
  1. Focus on your classes first
  2. Read the TODOS joint position statement
  3. Start or join a Math Teacher Circle or Math Circle
  4. Read Eric Gutstein's book, Reading and Writing the World with Mathematics: Toward a Pedagogy for Social Justice
  5. Go to NCTM and learn more about the issues via their publications and conferences.
  6. The AMS-MAA published a textbook on Mathematics for Social Justice (
I think college mathematics instructors have a larger distance to travel on this issue. College mathematics instructors have not taken educational psychology courses or mathematics methods courses. They did not have supervised teaching prior to starting their teaching careers. As an undergraduate mathematics major, all of the instruction I experienced was teacher centered.  College mathematics instructors need to first educate themselves about what it means to teach mathematics for understanding. Once mathematics instructors are up to speed on teaching and learning theory, then they can read the TODOS/NCSM Joint Position Statement and the research that supports it. They can read the works of Eric Gutstein and other related authors. Then they can start making the suggested changes to their instructional strategies.

It would be helpful if mathematics instructors could work in collaboration with one another to change their practices by doing things like planning lessons together, observing each other’s teaching and providing feedback, and looking at student work together.

Mathematics instructors need to join organizations like the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, The Association of Mathematics Teacher Educators, the American Mathematical Association, and the Mathematical Association of America, and attend conferences and workshops that focus on successful pedagogical approaches.

Has there been any pushback or backlash in this area of work?
There are people who disagree with this point of view.  people work in social justice in Mathematics. Pushback from people who want to keep the status quo. Think about school buy-in. Student buy-in, teacher buy-in, parent buy-in, administrator buy-in.

There is pushback from people who are not in agreement with the movement for access, equity, and social justice in mathematics education. There are traditional teachers of mathematics who do not see anything wrong with the current system of mathematics education, and feel no need to change their practices. There are mathematics teachers who are opposed to introducing social justice topics into the mathematics curriculum. Many teachers feel that their role is to serve as a gatekeeper, keeping students they don’t deem capable of taking advanced mathematics tracked into lower level classes.

There are parents who like a system that privileges their children over other children. In this case, they understand that there are sometimes only one or two advanced placement mathematics courses offered in a school. Traditionally these classes are kept to an enrollment of thirty students or less. Many parents feel that if more students are given access to advanced placement mathematics courses, there will be fewer opportunities for their children. Schools and districts have a responsibility to find ways to increase the pipeline of students who are prepared for advanced placement mathematics while finding ways to offer more spaces to accommodate these students.

  1. Read the Joint Position Statement by TODOS and NCSM.  Learn about equitable teaching practices that you can use in your classroom. Here’s a link to 21 practices you can use in your classes.  HERE Tanner, K. (2013). Structure matters: Twenty-one teaching strategies to promote student engagement and cultivate classroom equity. CBE Life Sciences Education, 12(3), 322-331.
  2. California Math Project:
  3. TODOS: Excellence and Equity in Mathematics 
  4. Mathematics for Equity (San Lorenzo, HS)
  5. Rehumanizing Mathematics for Black, Indigenous, and Latinx Students, National Council of Teachers of Mathematics
  6. SERP 5x8 to assist teachers and administrators in improving math classes via observation.