Developing Culturally Responsive Mathematics Teachers: Understanding Equity and Access in Math Education
Background: Math is often thought to be one of the few objective, context-free areas of study. Yet, national and state assessment data repeatedly report disparities in mathematics achievement based on race/ethnicity and socioeconomic status. The perceived neutrality of mathematics education combined with persistent gaps in achievement between student groups can mislead educators to believe that some students are inherently incapable of achievement instead of questioning the inequities of students’ educational experiences. Culturally Responsive Math Education (CRME) provides a framework through which teachers can critically examine their beliefs about students, their potential for learning mathematics, and the cultural and community-based experiences they bring into the classroom. Purpose: There are often significant cultural, racial, and social gaps between teachers and the diverse student populations they serve, as well as differences in their experiences with learning and using mathematics. Unfortunately, teacher preparation programs rarely provide the time and space needed for teachers to critically consider how their unique experiences contribute to their beliefs and assumptions about students from backgrounds different from their own. Guided by the CRME Framework, this action research study investigated the following questions: (1) How do teachers’ sociocultural and mathematical backgrounds and experience influence their understanding and approach to equity and access in math education? and (2) How does professional development for CRME influence participants’ understanding and approach to equitable and accessible math education within the context of a mid-sized rural school district? Methods: A qualitative case study design was used to investigate the experiences of nine elementary math teachers within a mid-sized rural school district who recently participated in a five-week PD series designed to increase their understanding of CRME. Qualitative data were collected from participants’ responses to pre- and post-PD open-ended questionnaires, math autobiographies, classroom observations, video recordings of PD sessions, and semi structured interviews, then transcribed, coded, and analyzed to identify key themes and patterns as they emerged for individuals, as well as the group as a whole. Results: Teachers’ prior experiences as learners of mathematics, as well as sociocultural differences between teachers and their students, contributed to their beliefs about what counts as mathematical knowledge and who is capable of knowing it. Participants often used deficit-oriented language to describe their students’ capabilities for learning mathematics and emphasized a procedural understanding of mathematics with low cognitive demand. However, after participating in a PD for CRME, teachers decreased use of deficit-oriented language while increasing resource-oriented language, placed a higher emphasis on the conceptual understanding of mathematics rather than procedural understanding, and demonstrated a new inclination towards mathematical discourse and student participation as opportunities for learning. Conclusion: A preference for procedural over conceptual understanding of mathematics combined with the notion that some students are mathematically deficient can hinder students’ access to equitable learning opportunities. Findings suggest that elementary math teachers, particularly those working with traditionally underserved student populations, can benefit when given time and space to critically reflect and discuss their beliefs about their students and math education, impacting their understanding of equity and access within the math classroom.