Equitable Mathematics Instruction in the time of COVID-19

May 16, 2021

In the spring of 2020, we released our first concept paper: Equitable ELA Instruction. In it, we described a vision of what it means to enact instruction in English Language Arts that is truly equitable and issued a call to action for educators at all levels of the system to engage in three foundational moves. Coming this summer, we’re excited, one year later, to bring you “Equitable Math Instruction,” which is similarly designed to raise awareness of three key, systemic moves required to bring about a more equitable vision of mathematics teaching and learning. The moves are: 

  1. Adopt an aligned curriculum.
  2. Enact core instruction that is engaging, affirming, and meaningful for students, including instructional support that fosters all students’ persistence with grade-level tasks.
  3. Provide targeted intervention in addition to and in service of grade-level learning.

As school systems continue to face disruptions due to the COVID-19 pandemic, attending to equity is more important than ever before. We want to share a little bit more about these three foundational moves, what they mean, and why they are critical right now. 

Adopt aligned curriculum.

In “Equitable Math Instruction,” we write that: “adopting a set of high-quality instructional materials offers a focal point around which the coordinated efforts of teachers, coaches, and leaders can systematically provide all students with a rich vision of mathematics.” A standards-aligned curriculum is a tool that can bring focused, coherent mathematics, with an appropriate balance of concepts, procedures, and applications, to all students. In a moment of disrupted schooling, when instruction may shift between remote, hybrid, and in-person settings, a clear, shared anchor that embodies the best of what we know about learning math is essential for equitable instruction.

Over the past year, we’ve seen this call for aligned materials echo throughout the K-12 education space. The Council of Chief State School Officers’ (CCSSO) comprehensive “Restart & Recovery” academic guidelines note that: “High-quality curriculum was invaluable this past spring, offering consistent and coherent support for teachers, students, and families/caregivers who all needed to work in concert in various settings and various combinations.” Additionally, we’ve heard plenty of anecdotal stories of how aligned materials have been indispensable for student learning, such as the 2019 Baltimore City Public Schools Teacher of the Year Kyair Butts. Aligned materials are a powerful tool for equity, especially in this time of disrupted schooling. EdReports has also released this helpful planning tool that helps place aligned materials at the center of school reopening plans. Adopting an aligned curriculum allows educators to focus on preparing and adapting materials for various settings (rather than planning “from scratch”) and offers consistency for families and caregivers. 

Enact core instruction that is engaging, affirming, and meaningful for students, including instructional support that fosters all students’ persistence with grade-level tasks.

In this paper, we write that: “Enacting equitable instruction means seeing, welcoming, and including the full humanity of all of our students.” Nevermore has this been true than during the disrupted schooling of the past year. Instruction must engage students, especially in remote or hybrid settings; classrooms, whether online or in-person, must be warm and inclusive spaces, especially for marginalized students. We also write that “educators must acknowledge the pervasive racism within and by which our K-12 system operates; otherwise, we may unknowingly and implicitly carry notions of racial hierarchy into the classroom.” Enacting equitable instruction starts with ourselves, including interrogation of our beliefs and assumptions about students and learning. Our anti-bias toolkit, along with this webinar from Student Achievement Partners on Dismantling Racism in Mathematics Education, are great places to get started with this work. 

We also write that “learning experiences are effective when they respond to and build on students’ preconceptions, experiences, and cultural funds of knowledge.” No matter the setting, finding ways to tap into students’ knowledge and lived experiences is critical. And these ideas are closely linked: a classroom that acknowledges what mathematical knowledge and experiences students bring with them is likely to be a place where students feel welcomed and affirmed. CCSSO’s academic guidelines also refer to this idea: “Learning experiences that build on students’ assets—their identity, cultural and language background, interests, and aspirations—will make the learning relevant and engaging.”

We further write that: “Educators must adjust materials to ensure, among other things, that students are given opportunities: 

  • For reciprocal teaching and other communal and collective learning activities;
  • To do mathematics in ways that expose inequities and advocate for social justice;
  • To understand the mathematics used in their local communities and histories.”

These tenets are fundamental as students persist with remote learning or return to in-person school. This interview with Zaretta Hammond provides essential guidance to ensure remote instruction is culturally responsive, and as this EdWeek piece emphasizes, the pandemic has brought increased opportunities to teach mathematics for social justice.

Provide targeted intervention in addition to and in service of grade-level learning.

There is a significant risk that, in the coming months, millions of children will be assigned to inequitable intervention programs to combat “learning loss.” In our paper, “We argue that the primary objective [of intervention] should be to maximize opportunities to learn grade-level knowledge and skills; the learning outcomes should be targeted at the most relevant prerequisites for grade-level learning, and, where possible, be presented to students within the context of grade-level learning.” We argue that using intervention time in ways that are not coordinated with grade-level learning is inequitable. 

This sentiment is echoed in “Addressing Unfinished Learning after COVID-19 School Closures” from the Council of Great City Schools (CGCS): “All too often, unfinished learning leads to remediation or pull-out interventions that serve to isolate students further and impede their access to rigorous, engaging grade-level content—this is how something as natural as unfinished learning leads to intractable achievement and opportunity gaps.” In “The Structure is the Standards,”  a similar charge is offered: “Much unfinished learning from earlier grades can be managed best inside grade-level work when the progressions are used to understand student thinking.” Through carefully designed and coordinated interventions, more students can engage and be successful with grade-level mathematics. 

Read the concept paper and learn more about the three foundational moves required for equitable mathematics instruction.