How Does Race Affect a Student's Math Education? (2024)


A new paper examines the ways “whiteness” reproduces racial advantages and disadvantages.

By Melinda D. Anderson
How Does Race Affect a Student's Math Education? (1)

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Kassie Benjamin-Ficken, a teacher in Minneapolis, discovered her love of math in elementary school. One of her earliest memories is begging her mother to come to school so her teachers could share how she excelled in math class. While earning average scores in reading, she was consistently above average for math—which instilled her with a sense of accomplishment. That continued into middle school, where she recalls asking her math teachers to move her into a higher grade for more advanced content. But she remained in the same middle-school class.

Then in high school, her excitement for math slowly turned to disappointment. Benjamin-Ficken, a citizen of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe (a tribal nation in Minnesota), was one of two students of color in her 11th-grade pre-calculus class. When her study partner was absent for a series of days, Benjamin-Ficken began to struggle with the material and barely passed the class with a D-minus. Her senior year in AP Calculus repeated the pattern—lacking support and feeling ignored in the class, she passed with a D.

“I didn’t have a math teacher that I could go and get help from, [and] I didn't feel comfortable at all approaching my own math teacher,” she said. Recognizing the undercurrent—how her feelings of isolation were related to her race—she admits “those two [classes] really made me question: Do I consider myself good at math anymore?”

Lately, much of the discussion of race in math education has centered on the persistent underperformance of certain student groups, particularly black, Latino, and indigenous youth, and their disparate access to honors, gifted, and advanced mathematics courses. Yet a new paper disrupts those narratives by examining an unaddressed element of the equation—namely, the ways in which “whiteness” in math education reproduces racial advantages for white students and disadvantages historically marginalized students of color.

Dan Battey, an associate math professor at the Rutgers University Graduate School of Education, said he set out to synthesize for math educators the research literature from sociology, history, and other disciplines on whiteness—defined in the paper as “the ideology that maintains white supremacy, valuing one racial group over others.” He also sought to expose how whiteness operates in classrooms and schools, leaving black, Latino, and indigenous students disenfranchised mathematically.

According to Battey, there are ways in which math teachers, math educators, and math researchers “are perpetuating racism in schools”—which is shaping the expectations, interactions, and kinds of mathematics that students experience. And the lack of attention to whiteness as the fundamental cause leaves it invisible and neutral. “Naming white institutional spaces, as well as identifying the mechanisms that oppress and privilege students, can give those who work in the field of mathematics education specific ideas of how to better combat racist structures,” writes Battey and his co-author Luis Leyva, of Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College of Education.

One example of whiteness explored in the paper is how the relentless drumbeat from researchers about racial differences in math achievement is linked to racially differential treatment in math classrooms. The concept of racial hierarchy of mathematical ability—a term coined by Danny Martin, education professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago—basically says constantly reading and hearing about underperforming black, Latino, and indigenous students begins to embed itself into how math teachers view these students, attributing achievement differences to their innate ability to succeed in math.

As the theory goes, with white and Asian students consistently at the top of math-achievement rankings—and black and other nonwhite students continuously trailing behind—teachers start to expect worse performance from certain students, start to teach lower content, and start to use lower-level math instructional practices. By contrast, white and Asian students are given the benefit of the doubt and automatically afforded the opportunity to do more sophisticated and substantive mathematics. The consequences are classrooms where Asian students not excelling in math are seen as an oddity, and black students excelling in math are seen as an outlier.

Battey pointed to whiteness to help explain the roots of the widely reported racial inequality in gifted-education programs. He cited data from an undisclosed metropolitan area where 18 percent of white students were identified for gifted programs, compared to 1 percent of black students, signaling that “we're not looking for gifted [students] within predominantly black settings, and we're constantly looking for giftedness in white settings … whiteness is impacting how and where we see mathematics ability.” The opposite also holds true, he added, with more targeted interventions for white students who are struggling in math and fewer for black students “possibly because we expect [them to struggle.]”

Another instance of whiteness is seen in how math “achievement gaps” are commonly defined. Even though research shows Asian students on average outperform white students in math, this underachievement receives scant attention—and when discussed, is seldom characterized in a negative light. “A lot of times in whiteness literature, we talk about the refusal to pathologize whiteness, and this is a case,” Battey explained. “For African Americans, for Native Americans, for Latinos in mathematics, we attribute something internally to the child or internally to the culture that's making them achieve lower. We don’t do that for white students … producing some deficit idea about who whites are.”

In practice, whiteness can create a self-fulfilling prophecy, Battey said, where some children receive rote, basic mathematics—counting apples and brownies, and completing worksheets—while other children are given rich problem-solving tasks. “You could just reinforce that certain students are bad at math by giving them poorer and poorer quality of instruction,” he said, “and they’ll start to look poorer and poorer at math [by default].”

For non-Asian students of color in math classrooms, one response to whiteness is to dis-identify with mathematics—telling themselves “I don’t care about math. Math isn’t important to me.” Similarly, students can begin to internalize the racial stereotypes surrounding math performance. A 2014 study published in the Journal of Research on Adolescence found that children as early as the fifth grade were acutely aware of the label that “Asians are good at math.” The report cautioned about “the pernicious nature” of this belief, and its effect on how students of all races view themselves as individual learners.

Benjamin-Ficken, whose high-school experience challenged her confidence as a math student, is now a math specialist at Anishinabe Academy, a Minneapolis public school focused on using Native language and culture to support academics for urban indigenous students. A self-described math nerd, her teaching philosophy is grounded in breaking down the negative thoughts and ideas her students hold about mathematics. “If they want to choose this as a career, it's possible, [and] even if they don't … they can still think mathematically. A huge goal of mine is to build up that identity.”

But she’s also constrained by the institutional aspects of whiteness in her classroom that exist outside her teaching methods—not simply the how of teaching, but what the state standards value. She and her students share a culture that isn’t reflected in the way she’s expected to teach math. Required to rely on what she calls a “western white lens,” other sources of math knowledge that would be relevant to her students remain untapped. “What are the theorems that we have known here in America before colonization? What indigenous mathematicians have we had? We’re not a written society, so we don't have these books that say, ‘Here’s this Ojibwe person’s knowledge.’ It’s not the fact that I’m teaching this theorem … it’s what else can we highlight in our own community, in our own history here in Minnesota?”

Echoing this observation, Erika Bullock, an assistant professor of math education at University of Wisconsin-Madison, welcomed the whiteness paper’s framing of racism in institutional terms. She stressed the importance of this emphasis in moving the discussion away from looking at race and racism in math education solely at the interpersonal level. “We usually don’t talk about math education from an institutional perspective. We tend to very much focus at the classroom-teacher-student level,” she said. “We don’t zoom out very much to talk about it institutionally.”

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While acknowledging its contributions, Bullock still questioned a core principle: In scrutinizing whiteness, had the paper skirted the idea of anti-blackness? By definition, she said, whiteness and anti-blackness might appear to mean the same thing. But the terms can mask distinctions, she noted. To illustrate, Bullock applied a critical race-theory lens to the paper’s findings—for example, how the conclusions on racial stereotypes might be viewed differently if the measure wasn’t the dominant positioning of white students (whiteness) but how the test is racially biased (anti-blackness). “I think it centers white [people] in a way, even as you’re thinking about interrogating whiteness,” she said. “A framework for whiteness necessitates a discussion of anti-blackness. To operate in anti-blackness [is] a very different thing.”

Still, both Bullock and Battey agreed that school systems ought to support math educators in deconstructing and discarding the white frame of mathematics education. “Hopefully this starts to attune people to what to look for in classrooms [and how to] provide more opportunities for students to engage more openly in mathematics,” Battey said.

How Does Race Affect a Student's Math Education? (2024)


How does race affect students in school? ›

But research shows that feeling overwhelming school-related stress actually reduces your motivation to do the work, impacts your overall academic achievement, and increases your odds of dropping out. Stress can also cause health problems such as depression, poor sleep, substance abuse, and anxiety.

Why is math so hard for some people? ›

Because math involves using plenty of multi-step processes to solve problems, being able to master it takes a lot more practice than other subjects. Having to repeat a process over and over again can quickly bore some children and this may make them become impatient with math.

What are the difficulties in learning mathematics? ›

Mistakes such as number additions, substitutions, transpositions, omissions, and reversals in writing, reading, and recalling numbers. Difficulty with abstract concepts of time and direction. Inability to recall schedules and sequences of past or future events. Being chronically early or late.

How do mathematics help us in developing our understanding? ›

Mathematics is a fundamental part of human thought and logic, and integral to attempts at understanding the world and ourselves. Mathematics provides an effective way of building mental discipline and encourages logical reasoning and mental rigor.

How does race affect student achievement? ›

Racial complementarities in educational achievement have much empirical support. There is a positive correlation between academic achievement and racial match for both black and white students on concrete measures of performance such as test scores (Hanushek et al.

How did race to the top impact education? ›

Race to the Top has helped drive states nationwide to pursue higher standards, improve teacher effectiveness, use data effectively in the classroom, and adopt new strategies to help struggling schools.

What subjects do students struggle with the most? ›

It's no surprise that mathematics is often considered to be one of the most challenging subjects for students. Recent surveys report that 37% of teens aged 13-17 found math to be harder than other subjects – the highest ranked overall.

Why do students get anxiety in math? ›

Many factors may contribute to or facilitate the maths anxiety. These factors or facilitators may include teachers, parents, peers and society. Negative experiences of maths learning in classroom or home can lead to maths anxiety [7].

Do students struggle with math? ›

Surveys show that about 37% of students aged 13 to 17 found math to be the most challenging subject in school. While some students do have a sharp sense of logic and reasoning, they can still find themselves struggling with math homework and quizzes.

What are the factors affecting students learning in mathematics? ›

Mathematics education requires highly motivated students because it requires reasoning, making interpretations, and solving problems, mathematical issues, and concepts. The challenges of mathematics learning for today's education is that it requires disciplined study, concentration and motivation.

What are the 4 barriers to teaching and learning math? ›

Noor and Majid (2009) recommended these four barriers as following: Situational, Attitudinal, Structural and Academic. According to Western Cape Education Department, South Africa (WCED) barriers can broadly be divided into four groups: Societal Barriers, Systemic Barriers, Pedagogical Barriers and Medical Barriers.

Why do some children have difficulty learning mathematics? ›

Disorders like dyslexia, visual or auditory processing, ADHD, and others can also impact a child's ability to meet expectations in completing math problems. It's also possible for kids who do have dyscalculia to have other learning disabilities as well.

Why is math important in cultural development? ›

Therefore mathematics helps to develop their aesthetic sensibility, meets the varying interests and helps them in the proper utilization of their leisure time. Role of Mathematics in Cultural Development This helps the learner to understand the contribution of mathematics in the development of civilization and culture.

What role does mathematics play in your life in the world? ›

It gives us a way to understand patterns, to quantify relationships, and to predict the future. Math helps us understand the world — and we use the world to understand math. The world is interconnected. Everyday math shows these connections and possibilities.

What is the most important contribution of math in humankind? ›

Enhances Analytical Thinking and Logical Reasoning

Furthermore, math fosters analytical thinking and logical reasoning, which are essential problem-solving skills. Analytical thinking involves critical thinking, while logical reasoning is the ability to think logically.

How does race to the top benefit students? ›

Improvement of assessments and more rigorous standards for schools. Turn-around of failing schools through increased emphasis and resources. Support that allows teachers and staff to be more effective. Better methods for tracking progress of both students and teachers.

How does race and social class affect education? ›

In line with prior research, Inequalities at the Starting Gate finds that the most socioeconomically disadvantaged children lag substantially in both reading and math skills, and that these skill levels rise along with social class. As such, poor children face substantial obstacles to school success.

How does race and ethnicity affect a person's education? ›

Race and ethnicity influence teaching and learning in two important ways: They affect how students respond to instruction and curriculum, and they influence teachers' assumptions about how students learn and how much students are capable of learning.

What is race for education? ›

Race for Education equips schools to raise considerable funds from sponsors for educational needs through an annual event involving students jogging or walking for just one hour.

What does race to the top mean in education? ›

Race to the Top, abbreviated R2T, RTTT or RTT, is a multi-billion dollar U.S. Department of Education competitive grant program to support education reform and innovation in state and local district K-12 education.

Why do high school students struggle with math? ›

Lack of understanding of basic concepts.

Most of the struggles a student faces with math can be traced to one problem: a poor grasp of basic concepts and weak foundational skills. Successful math learning is largely dependent on a student's understanding and mastery of earlier concepts.

What is the hardest math topic in high school? ›

What is the Hardest Math Class in High School? In most cases, you'll find that AP Calculus BC or IB Math HL is the most difficult math course your school offers. Note that AP Calculus BC covers the material in AP Calculus AB but also continues the curriculum, addressing more challenging and advanced concepts.

How do you overcome math difficulties? ›

Reducing Math Anxiety
  1. Study Smart. Read the information on study skills, time management, note-taking, and reading textbooks. ...
  2. Attend Math Class. ...
  3. Get Organized. ...
  4. Continually Test Yourself. ...
  5. Replace Negative Self-Talk with Positive. ...
  6. Use All Your Resources.

What is the fear of math among students? ›

Such phobia is called arithmophobia or numerophobia. The words arithmophobia and numerophobia both have Greek origins where the root word stands for 'numbers', and 'phobos' meaning 'deep dislike or fear'. This type of phobia affects student's attitude towards mathematics and often creates ridiculous fear of numbers.

What is a fear of math called? ›

Arithmophobia is an extreme fear of numbers. People may feel afraid of all numbers or only specific numbers. Another name for arithmophobia is numerophobia.

What is the root of math anxiety? ›

Wu claims that the beginnings of math anxiety in students can often be traced to “the day they go to school and learn about fractions.” Some research has indeed linked math anxiety to early exposure to negative math experiences .

Why do students struggle with problem solving? ›

Lack of Practice

Sometimes students feel like they understand the concept during the lecture, but while solving the problem they find it difficult to solve the problem. It's important for students to understand a problem then solve it on your own, and practice it weekly/monthly.

What is the most difficult math subject? ›

Advanced Calculus is the hardest math subject, according to college professors. One of the main reasons students struggle to understand the concepts in Advanced Calculus is because they do not have a good mathematical foundation. Calculus builds on the algebraic concepts learned in previous classes.

What affects student learning the most? ›

Parent involvement

A supportive and involved family is one of the most important factors that affects student achievement and academic performance. Research has shown that students with involved parents achieve higher grades, have better attendance, and have bigger long-term aspirations.

What are the factors affecting students learning difficulties? ›

1) Interest, study habits, and mastery of information together contribute directly to learning difficulties by 63.3%. 2) Individual analysis shows that information mastery has a more dominant effect on student interest and study habits.

What factor has the most impact on student learning? ›

The most thorough research to date on classroom best practice has revealed the number one factor that impacts student learning is engaging teaching. The study reveals that factors like homework, small classroom sizes and a long school day do not have a big influence on students' learning outcomes.

What are the barriers to effective teaching math? ›

The top barriers for mathematics teachers were heavily student related: Lack of prior knowledge and Lack of motivation/effort/interest. In addition, Parental support/involvement and Addressing misconceptions were also high concerns.

What are the most common barriers to learning in school? ›

Most common types of barriers to learning (and how to overcome them)
  1. Motivation. At one point or another, we all hit that 2:30 motivation drag. ...
  2. Lack of previous knowledge. ...
  3. Learning challenges. ...
  4. Learning environment. ...
  5. Emotional factors. ...
  6. Learning styles. ...
  7. Overall presentation. ...
  8. Learning experience.
Jul 16, 2021

How to identify learners who experience barriers in mathematics? ›

Carry out a full diagnostic assessment

A range of standardised tests help find out whether the underlying difficulty is dyscalculia or a different cause, such as poor-working memory. You can test to assess verbal and visual IQ, working memory, and processing speed.

Why do children dread mathematics? ›

Shakuntala Devi Quotes. Why do children dread mathematics? Because of the wrong approach. Because it is looked at as a subject.

Why are some kids better at math than others? ›

It comes down to what kind of exposure and experiences children have early in their lives. Some parents see to it that their kids do more with numbers than others. They do more at home, they do more in social events, and they do more in school. These routine exposures make them appear good at math.

How will you teach children having difficulties in mathematics? ›

Read on for some helpful strategies to help you teach your kids about mathematics.
  • Start with counting. Learning math begins with counting. ...
  • Use pictures. Pictures are helpful tools when teaching children math concepts. ...
  • Make flashcards. ...
  • Make math fun. ...
  • Use hands-on teaching tools. ...
  • Play math games. ...
  • Use everyday objects.
Nov 17, 2021

Why should mathematics educators care about race and culture? ›

Race and culture are not only core to the learning process but also they are central forces that organize our society and determine access to high-quality mathematics instruction.

How do you promote diversity in math? ›

Use students' interest in contextualized tasks. Expose students to a diverse group of mathematicians. Design assessments and assignments with a variety of response types. Use systematic grading and participation methods.

Can mathematics be dependent on culture? ›

However, knowledge from mathematics can be derived only if the cultural setting encourages it, and only if this knowledge and understanding promotes development of the culture. This makes mathematics more dependent on culture when compared with other areas and fields of knowledge.

Why are people so reluctant to mathematics? ›

Some students dislike math because they think it's dull. They don't get excited about numbers and formulas the way they get excited about history, science, languages, or other subjects that are easier to personally connect to. They see math as abstract and irrelevant figures that are difficult to understand.

What is the impact of mathematics in society? ›

Mathematics provides an effective way of building mental discipline and encourages logical reasoning and mental rigor. In addition, mathematical knowledge plays a crucial role in understanding the contents of other school subjects such as science, social studies, and even music and art.

What are the 10 reasons why mathematics is important? ›

10 Reasons Why Math Is Important in Real Life
  • Helps Kids Develop Critical Thinking Skills. ...
  • Develops a Healthy Brain. ...
  • Teaches Kids How to Handle Failure. ...
  • Helps Kids Understand the World Around Them. ...
  • Encourages Kids to Be Creative. ...
  • Teaches Kids How to Make Decisions. ...
  • Boosts Self-Confidence. ...
  • Encourages Kids to Be Persistent.
Feb 20, 2023

What are the benefits of mathematics to humans? ›

Here's why.
  • Math promotes healthy brain function. ...
  • Math improves problem-solving skills. ...
  • Math supports logical reasoning and analytical thinking. ...
  • Math develops flexible thinking and creativity. ...
  • Math opens up many different career paths. ...
  • Math may boost emotional health. ...
  • Math improves financial literacy. ...
  • Math sharpens your memory.
Sep 23, 2022

What is the most important things in math? ›

To do anything involving math, you will need to know how to add, subtract, multiply and divide basic numbers. Knowing these basics is extremely helpful, especially when dealing with money.

What is the most important field of mathematics? ›

Algebra is the most important branch of mathematics and is applied in various other fields of study as well such as physics, chemistry, engineering, biotechnology, and even in economics and accounting.

How does the race strategy help students? ›

The RACE/RACES strategy helps students organize their thinking and writing. Students add details, such as citing text evidence and extending their answers, as they follow the steps of the acronym. As a result, students learn essential skills as they practice writing clear and complete responses.

What does races mean for school? ›

It stands for the following key components: Restate the question. Answer the question. Cite evidence. Explain your answer.

What are the examples of educational inequality? ›

Poorly trained teachers at minority schools, poor school relationships, and poor parent-to-teacher relationships play a role in this inequality. With these factors, minority students are at a disadvantage because they are not given the appropriate resources that would in turn benefit their educational needs.

Why an understanding of the concepts of race class and gender is essential? ›

Race, class, and gender are connected categories of identity that influence many aspects of life. These categories, in their respective influences, structure people's experiences in society. These social structures can feel more significant at any time of a person's life, and individuals feel their effects in society.

Why is it important to use races? ›

RACES is a successful strategy because it allows students to easily organize their writing. It is almost like a checklist to help students ensure they include all necessary elements to a complete response. When using RACES, students are able to write a more complete and detailed response.

What is the benefit of race diversity? ›

Fewer internal disputes and grievances. Improved accessibility to new and diverse customer markets. Higher productivity and increased revenue. Increased innovation.

What is the race strategy for math? ›

This product comes with five posters showing the acronym R.A.C.E. These posters define R.A.C.E. as, 1)Restate the Question 2)Answer the Question 3)Check Your Answer 4)Explain Your reasoning This also comes with a graphic organizer where students can practice math constructed response questions using the R.A.C.E.

What is the most important thing your school can do to support students of different races ethnicities and cultures? ›

Acknowledge and Respect Every Student

When appropriate, teachers should encourage students to research and learn about their own ethnic and cultural backgrounds. This allows them to better understand their own culture as well as the differences and nuances with their peers.

How do you answer a question using the race strategy? ›

  1. RACE Strategy for Answering Questions.
  2. Restate the Question (the "R" in "RACE")
  3. Answering the Question (the "A" in "RACE")
  4. Citing Evidence (the "C" in "RACE")
  5. Explaining the Answer (the "E" in "RACE")
  6. experience.

What is the race strategy for first grade? ›

The RACE strategy is an acronym (Restate question, Answer the question, Cite text evidence, Explain the evidence) that helps students structure their response to a question in a thoughtful, organized way that draws from the text.

What are examples of races? ›

For race, the OMB standards identify five minimum categories:
  • White.
  • Black or African American.
  • American Indian or Alaska Native.
  • Asian.
  • Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander.
Aug 4, 2021

What is the objective of race? ›

RACE is an acronym formed of the four stages of a marketing framework. These stages are Reach, Act, Convert, Engage. Each stage is its own ongoing process, but all aim to move leads down the pipeline to eventually become advocates of your business or brand.


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