Math Equity


This semester, I’ve been lucky enough to teach a tiny math class at a school that genuinely wants to educate (in the best senses of that word) its students and frees teachers up to do so. There are no set curriculum, no enormous, dry textbooks, and no standardized tests to anticipate.

Also, I’ve had some of their top math students in my class — not many kids make it to calculus at that school.

Another wonderful thing about the place is that the student body comes from all over New York City and all sorts of economic and ethnic backgrounds. And half of the students in my calculus class are female.

The most painful thing about this job has been looking inequality in the face. Tutoring lets me do this from time to time (I work individually with a wide variety of students), too.

What can I tell you? Even students who love math, have developed a knack for it, and want to go into engineering and other math-heavy fields bring whatever unjust baggage this country has loaded onto their backs along.

Many of them figured algebra out and it became their ticket into higher-level high school math classes. But the lack of quality teaching at their elementary and/or middle schools means that things like graphing and developing a useful understanding of what a function is remain obstacles to their success. Poor English language arts courses and low literacy expectations mean that it’s quite difficult for some students to decipher and follow instructions to math problems and to make sense of “word problems.”

More importantly, many kids did not develop great study skills and/or don’t have access to quiet places to study, people (and computers) who can help them catch up when they miss class or have questions for other reasons, etc. Some students arrive to exams without pencils. Most low-income students don’t own graphing calculators (which can become an obstacle to success in high school math courses, though most kids have smart phones, through which they can access apps and websites that help with this).

Some schools that cater to middle- and upper-class students also handicap them, e.g. when they provide or allow the use of calculators continuously. And many of these schools (private and public) don’t teach graphing and certain other subjects well. Furthermore, schools of all sorts fail to encourage girls who excel at math to pursue it passionately: how many female students join school and outside math clubs? Most (but thankfully not all) of the children whose parents bring them to me for enrichment (extra math, because school-based doesn’t satiate them) are male. Nearly all are white.

So economic injustice is not the only obstacle the United States faces on the road to math equity and the development of a decently-educated workforce for science, tech, engineering, and math in this country. All schools and all care-takers can do more to inspire the children they’re educating to do their best (which is much, much better than many realize) in math and to pursue it at every turn.

But the obstacles kids face when growing up in low-income neighborhoods and families and as females and people of color make success in math (and STEM) extraordinarily difficult to come by. WE MUST CHANGE THIS.

J. Henning
Curriculum Consultant / Educator —
Founder, — justine@math4science