March 21, 2019

Mathematics Education, Equity, and Professional Development

This is a guest blog post from Esther Song:

When I was growing up in the small section of affordable housing in an affluent Chicago suburb, I remember most of my adolescence wishing I was white. Back then, I didn’t realize that’s what I wanted. As a middle school kid, it came out in the form of looking in the mirror and wishing my eyes were larger with a characteristic Caucasian eyelid fold, that my hair was blond, and my nose wasn’t so round. As a high school student, it meant hedging my hope on the American dream. As a college student, it meant not hanging out with too many Asians in professional settings so that I wouldn’t be dismissed as just that “Asian group.” Most of my life has been spent thinking about what I lacked.

Truthfully, if I were to characterize equity professional development in math education today, I would use the phrase “wishing they (students of color) were white.” And I would add that most professional development on equity in mathematics education works to support this deeply ingrained and ultimately racist belief. I remember one school administrator pointing proudly to a chart based on testing data separated by race and said, “This school has fixed the achievement gap” almost as if to say “racism is solved.” I looked around to see my mostly white colleagues nodding their heads in agreement. By achievement gap, they meant the gap between black and brown students and their white peers. And by achievement, they meant testing data. I could get into how high-stakes testing is not a good indicator of learning (or potential) and a better indicator of class, income, and race- but when I think about it for too long, I find the whole thing overwhelmingly depressing. I digress.

I’ve spent 8 years going through PD after PD that claimed they had the solution. With arrogant certainty, the presenter would say “assessing students properly is the answer” or “learning through projects is real learning” or “we offer a guaranteed 50 point increase on the SAT.” I’m sick of presenters that provide technical solutions (e.g. textbooks, assessment, uniform disciplinary procedures) to non-technical problems (e.g. racism, poverty, fear). Don’t get me started on “Savior” type leaders who look at students of color with pity and as a list of deficits waiting to be “fixed.”

As one of the co-authors of the open letter to Twitter Math Camp, I had not even wanted to apply in the first place. I’m weary of going to majority-white conferences with majority white-leadership that claim that their conference is for me too because they slapped an equity label on it. I sighed in disappointment but not in surprise when I heard the leadership team preferred the status quo over changing the narrative.

I can only speak for myself and I have three central desires when it comes to professional development as a mathematics educator. I want (1) a community that (2) is aware of the struggle and (3) humbly sustains hope. The struggle birthed from centuries of racist beliefs, structures and practices- are abundantly present in math classrooms. This is where adolescents of color are told, “With enough grit and the right character, you can go to college, be successful, and achieve the American dream. You just have to wish to be white enough. And if you miss the ticket, never forget for a moment that it’s your fault.”

I have the honor of being part of the founding board of Nepantla Teachers Community, an organization dedicated to social justice and mathematics education by focusing on teacher identity. Nepantla is a Nahuatl (Aztec language) term connoting in between or a reference to the space of the middle. In other words, it is the space of uncertainty or "grey area". We sit bravely between difficult truths like “I am a teacher of color who believes in social justice” and “Students of color hold the lowest grades in my class.” Although we are new, the leadership team is a community for me. There are a few reasons we are different than other organizations I’ve encountered. Our leadership team is majority PoC. In our professional development workshops, we value building relationships equally to the content. We don’t offer easy-bake solutions but instead share our experiences of challenging tensions inside (and outside) of the classroom. There’s no pretty packaging or 3-step-cycle, but it’s honest, uncertain, and completely hopeful.

Because of the many anti-racist writers, activists, professors, teachers, and friends whose shoulders I stand, I’m no longer breathing in that toxic air that said my identity was inferior. I want my PD to #cleartheair, not further pollute it. I want to experience (and co-create) PD that fits my needs (and strengths). I want my PD to be filled with educators who experience the tension of reality and hope every day. I want nuance. I want creative insubordination. I want to stop receiving messages (for myself and for my students) that urge me to desire to be white and start celebrating what I (and my students) bring to the table. In short, I’m asking professional developers (myself included) to start changing the conversation from “how can we change our students of color so they can fit the successful mold?” to “how do we change ourselves so that our brilliant students (and teachers) of color can shine?”

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