Keeping Equity at the Center of Developmental Mathematics Reforms

By Tiffany E. Taylor

Within the last decade, several new approaches have been developed to bolster student success in developmental mathematics. The most common interventions address one or more areas of reform—assessment and placement, structure and sequence, instruction and content, and student supports—and have led to improved outcomes for many students.

Despite these gains, a significant proportion of students are still not succeeding in mathematics. Historically disadvantaged students, including low-income students and students of color, are overrepresented in developmental mathematics and less likely to have access to reforms. This is a concern because we know that students who have access to reforms tend to have better outcomes than those served by traditional approaches, and students of color are rapidly becoming the majority of the student population in the United States.

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine recently released a report on a workshop that examined developmental mathematics reforms and their implications for educational equity. Highlights from the workshop and the report are discussed below.

Steps Toward Making Developmental Mathematics Reforms More Equitable

Dismantle negative stereotypes about students’ mathematical abilities.

Mathematics equity has been defined as “the inability to predict mathematics achievement and participation based solely on student characteristics such as race, class, ethnicity, sex, beliefs, and proficiency in the dominant language.” Yet the workshop’s discussion on educational equity and developmental mathematics reform revealed that persistent deficit-based narratives about students’ mathematical abilities impede progress toward realizing this vision. Instructors’ attitudes, beliefs, and expectations about who can and cannot learn and do mathematics influence their perceptions of students’ capacity for challenging mathematical work, creating inequitable trajectories for certain groups of students. Moreover, faculty perceptions of students heavily impact students’ views of themselves as mathematics learners and their beliefs about their potential to develop their intellectual abilities.

Women, low-income students, adult learners, and students of color, in particular, report having negative experiences in mathematics, often having to navigate classroom environments that produce anxiety and trauma for them. In looking to mitigate the negative outcomes observed for these students, it may be tempting to lower expectations or even divert students away from mathematics-based fields. However, these approaches perpetuate negative stereotypes and compound existing disparities. All students, regardless of background, need authentic, rigorous learning experiences that afford opportunities to deepen their mathematical understanding. Therefore, colleges and universities should continually audit math reform policies and practices to eradicate approaches that create and perpetuate disparate opportunities to learn and achieve. Biases and deficit-based assumptions about student capabilities will need to be addressed in order to support students’ positive academic identities and agency in mathematics.

Reconsider what student success in mathematics means and how it is measured.

Another lever for equity in developmental mathematics reform is the dominant narrative about successful student outcomes. Success in mathematics reforms is typically defined using quantitative measures, such as course completion rates, college credit accumulation, reduced achievement gaps across racial/ethnic groups, and degree completion. But while positive outcomes in these areas are desirable and reflect where progress in the field has been made, they do not necessarily address other important questions, such as why, for whom, and under what conditions an approach leads to the observed outcomes. Moreover, the dominant narrative about successful student outcomes can have gatekeeping power. Students who do not perform well based on traditional, narrower measures could be excluded from opportunities that they need to reach their career goals. Redefining success in mathematics could broaden this pool of students.

Attend to the student experience.

The quality of the student experience, which is shaped by many factors, including advising, classroom culture, the quality of curriculum and instruction, and peer and faculty engagement, was also emphasized as an important but often omitted indicator of success in mathematics reforms. Documenting the student experience is especially important given its association with students’ academic progress and persistence in mathematics-based fields. Experience, however, is challenging to measure and is not captured by traditional quantitative methods. More qualitative methods are needed to reveal the nature of these experiences and shed light on which approaches would work best in a given setting. The specific features of a reform approach (e.g., changes to content, instruction, or structure) and the context of the learning environment are key to a student’s overall experience in mathematics and in college more generally. Both aspects should be taken into account to establish a more comprehensive picture of success in reforms to developmental mathematics.

Ensure math pathways reforms offer equal opportunities for students.

Finally, traditional pathways through mathematics have often focused on algebra and calculus. Some successful reform approaches (i.e., multiple mathematics pathways) allow students to engage with mathematics content that is aligned with their career goals, whether they are pursuing STEM disciplines or other areas. However, to be equitable, the math pathways approach should expand opportunities for student success rather than encourage specific students toward non-STEM pathways based on deficit-based assumptions about their ability. Likewise, it is imperative that mathematics courses for non-STEM pathways be as rigorous as STEM-specific mathematics courses, involving content with heft and relevance in different career fields. Such asset-based policies and practices are essential to counteracting narratives that can negatively impact student outcomes.

Closing Thoughts

Eliminating these barriers to opportunities and success in mathematics does not guarantee that ultimate goals (e.g., increased student interest in mathematics, attainment of high-value degrees) will be achieved. Even when barriers are removed, faculty and advisors will still need to intentionally recruit students who are historically underrepresented in STEM and actively support them in developing STEM aspirations. Thus, keeping equity at the center of mathematics reform efforts will require consistent attention to the full range of characteristics of the students being served—their race/ethnicity, gender, beliefs, first language, ability status, socioeconomic status, age, and academic preparation.

To download a free PDF of the full workshop summary report, see Increasing Student Success in Developmental Mathematics: Proceedings of a Workshop.

Tiffany E. Taylor is an associate program officer for the Board on Science Education at the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine in Washington, DC, and served as the staff lead for the Workshop on Increasing Student Success in Developmental Mathematics.