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Reframing Our Goals for Math Education: The Importance of Nurturing a Sense of Belonging

Think of a situation where you felt you belonged. What was that like? What made that happen for you? Consider a time when you sensed that you didn’t belong. How did you feel? What made you uncomfortable? And what do these questions have to do with teaching and learning mathematics? You will find out in this blog.

But first, let me start with the obvious: just like reading, learning mathematics is not optional. Calculating the interest on a student loan, appreciating the symmetry in a beautiful painting, understanding election results, figuring out how to scale a recipe for two to serve a party of ten, determining the amount of paint needed to cover the walls in a room, estimating the time it takes to travel to a destination, and recognizing the pattern in a melody are just some examples of the ways mathematics is all around us and essential to leading productive and joyful lives. To prepare students for meaningful participation in our 21st-century society, it is imperative for schools to help all students, regardless of their backgrounds, become proficient with mathematics.

A common metric for assessing students’ proficiency in mathematics is students’ performance on standardized tests. Recent test results, such as those from the
 2022 mathematics assessment of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, have shown glaring performance differences along racial, ethnic, and socio-economic lines, as well as by ability status and language background. The COVID-19 pandemic has only made these worse. Academic performance clearly is an important indicator of student learning, but all too often a narrow focus on improving student performance on achievement tests—rather than a focus on improving students’ learning and understanding of mathematics—has been the primary goal for driving improvements in mathematics education.

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