Paying Our Debt to Underserved Students

Eden M. Badertscher has extensive expertise in teacher education, mathematics curriculum and professional development, and advancing effective mathematics instruction in urban school districts. In the Mathematical Practice Institute, she leads a team in providing opportunities and tools for teachers and school administrators to effectively implement the Common Core State Standards for Mathematics (CCSSM) Standards for Mathematical Practice. Recently, PI Al Cuoco and co-PI Eden were awarded a five-year National Science Foundation (NSF) Mathematics and Science Partnership grant in the area of Current Issues Related to STEM content. In this post, Eden shares some thoughts on the focus of their important new effort to enhance mathematics education for marginalized students.

Gloria Ladson-Billings (2006) has argued that the United States does not have an achievement gap, but rather owes an “educational debt” to millions of underserved students. This month, PI Al Cuoco and I learned that the NSF’s Math and Science Partnership (MSP) program has funded an initiative we designed to help address this unpaid debt. Over the next five years, our MSP—"DEBT-M" (Designing for Equity by Thinking In and About Mathematics)—will be devoted to building a community of mathematical practice that tackles issues of systemic inequity and marginalization specifically within school mathematics. We purposefully avoid language such as "achievement gap," which takes a deficit perspective on learners and teachers, and focus on the "opportunity gap" which places the onus of the challenges within school mathematics on the system itself.

DEBT-M builds on previous work, particularly the Focus on Mathematics MSP and EDC’s ongoing, multi-year partnership with Pittsburgh Public Schools. DEBT-M will also help EDC establish three new partnerships—with the Department of Mathematical Sciences at Carnegie Mellon University, the Department of Education and Center for Urban Education at the University of Pittsburgh, and project evaluator Duquesne University of Pittsburgh. Together, we will collaborate to address the educational debt owed students, focus on the integration of the CCSSM Standards for Mathematical Practice with content in classrooms, and examine the underlying causes of opportunity gaps.

The keystone to DEBT-M is an intense program of professional development for teachers centered on inquiry both in and about mathematics. A four-week summer mathematical immersion experience will give teachers the experience of working as mathematicians, coupled with substantial opportunities to tackle the following key questions regarding the nature of mathematics learning and teaching:

  • How does mathematical knowledge grow?
  • How do mathematical experiences shape the beliefs and identities of learners?
  • How and why does mathematics education marginalize many learners?

We will devote considerable attention to developing and supporting the perspectives and practices that afford equitable, rigorous opportunities to all students within mathematics. And, we will work with district leaders and teachers to support system coherence and change. As DEBT-M unfolds over the next five years, we will prioritize sharing our lessons learned and insights with the field.