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Momentum in Mathematics

July 2, 2018

Written by: Rick Kitchen, Professor and Wyoming Excellence in Higher Education Endowed Chair in Mathematics Education

We are building some great momentum at the University of Wyoming in mathematics education. Next year, we’ll have six new PhD students in mathematics education! I hope that some will write blogs to share their experiences at UW as they engage in the program. In the interim, I thought I’d share a little bit about my background and interests in mathematics education.

My very first teaching experience was as a Teaching Assistant (TA) at an elementary school in Denver in the early 1980s where, I would come to learn; the worst teachers in the district were placed. This was an inner-city school that served poor Latino/a children, almost all of whom lived in poverty. One of the teachers for whom I worked would hand out worksheets every day for her students to complete, while she sat back and watched the daily Soap Operas on TV - I’m not making this up! My job was to circulate and do what I could to help the students complete their worksheets. This incident introduced me to the sort of educational opportunities that poor, students of color have historically been provided in the United States – very poor ones! The horrific experience was transformational for me: I now understood that extraordinary action was needed to address the educational inequities and injustices that have plagued this nation and continue to afflict us today. Since working as a Teaching Assistant at a school that some referred to at the time as a “throwaway school,” I have had many opportunities to visit classrooms throughout the United States as a consultant for both schools and school districts, and as a professional development provider for teacher trainings in mathematics. These experiences have also profoundly shaped my beliefs about public education, specifically schooling of students who have not historically been served well in public schools; students of color and students who have grown up in poverty (“underserved students”). Much of my teaching as well as my research focuses on improving mathematics education for underserved students.

RK blog #2 body imageIn mathematics, students have historically been sorted and stratified by race, ethnicity, SES, and gender. White and Asian middle class and upper-middle class students have had more opportunities to learn challenging mathematical content. Differential access to a challenging mathematics education is also a result of practices such as tracking, availability of Advanced Placement courses, and counselor referrals. Myself and others have investigated the historic reasons behind why educators of racial/ethnic minorities as well as working class students often make the memorization of math facts, algorithms, vocabulary and procedures the focal point of their instruction.

Research has also been undertaken that examines exemplary practices in mathematics at schools primarily attended by underserved students. In an effective schools study that I led, we studied the features that characterized nine highly effective, public secondary schools in mathematics that served low-income students. We found that these schools had high academic expectations with sustained support for academic excellence, challenging academic content and high-level instruction, and that the schools made the development of meaningful relationships among teachers and students a priority. A key finding was that by respecting students’ intellectual work, teachers fostered meaningful and supportive relationships with their students. As students developed strong relationships with their teachers, they were more willing to trust their teachers and were willing to work harder for them, while being less likely to resist their teachers as the academic rigor of classes increased. Schools like the one in this study serve as role models for schools around the country attended primarily by underserved students that are working to realize a progressive vision for mathematics education as articulated by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics and others.

Suggested readings:

  • Kitchen, R.S. & Civil, M. (Editors) (2011). Transnational and borderland studies in mathematics education. New York: Routledge Press.
  • Kitchen, R.S., DePree, J., Celedón-Pattichis, S., & Brinkerhoff, J. (2007). Mathematics education at highly effective schools that serve the poor: Strategies for change. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
  • Rodriguez, A.J. & Kitchen, R.S. (Editors) (2005). Preparing mathematics and science teachers for diverse classrooms: Promising strategies for transformative pedagogy. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

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