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13 thoughts on math teaching and intervention as we enter the 2021 school year

I have trying to write this post all summer. Each time I try, I want it to be more focused. Yet each time I revisit this idea I feel there are more things to add! So here we are, with the cumbersome number of 13 thoughts on math teaching as we enter the 2021 school year. Some of these may turn into additional posts, and please let me know if I should link to the writing of others in any category.

The idea of “learning loss” is deficit-focused, somewhat nonsensical, yet we cannot escape other kinds of loss. Loss that has permeated our collective lives in the last year and a half. Students have lost those dear to them. Students have lost time with friends, teachers, families. For many kids and families who attended very little school in person last year, it feels like the last year almost didn’t exist (for more on loss and our kids last year). I have heard my own child call last year “a lost year.” Kids had very different experiences, some attending school that felt like any other year, others visited their school in person maybe never, maybe a few times. Some experienced engaging Zoom classes, others not.

The first thing we need to consider is how these disparities in access and experience play out in equity. Math is already the most inequitable subject, with unfair outcomes based on demographics. What in the system will further penalize those who already suffered too much? This is a time to advocate for de-tracking, for elimination of standardized tests that determine opportunity. This is a great time to rethink grading practices that unfairly penalize some of our students for their lack of opportunities last year.

In teaching and learning mathematics, teachers face an old problem with a new twist. There have always been variability in our students, in their prior knowledge, in how they engage in mathematics, in their beliefs about their own selves as mathematicians. But these divergent experiences last year will make the variability greater. Teaching mathematics across this kind of variability is not easy, but it is both possible and necessary. And perhaps this year we will embrace what needs to be done to create a community of mathematical learners that is accessible to all.

Let us provide what students need without rushing to remediation for all. Yes, we might see that many students are behind. Many might score below a cut score on a screener (cut scores that were created pre-pandemic by a corporation). That does not mean that we take these students out of core mathematics instruction, that we focus on what they don’t know so much so that they don’t get a full chance to learn this year’s content. Instead, we need to welcome all kids into accessible, engaging math classrooms. Yes, we will need to provide extra supports for some, and opportunities to learn the concepts that they have not yet been exposed to, but we need to keep the train moving.

Resist remediation, resist making mathematics into a ladder in which kids cannot move on until they know everything ever taught in past years. Disability Studies scholar Alison Kafer writes about how disability is seen through a lens of “the curative imaginary”- she notes that disability is often seen only as something to fix, not as an identity, or as a set of strengths as well as challenges, or as a community, or a natural part of humanity that does not need to be fixed. Just as something to fix. She writes that the “curative imaginary, an understanding of disability that not only expects and assumes intervention but also cannot imagine or comprehend anything other than intervention”(Kafer, 2012, p. 27). Resist this. Do not look at your kids as data points, or they might see themselves that way. Resist the urge to think of your kids as a collection of “gaps.” The metaphor of gaps assumes that mathematical knowledge is some kind of perfectly filled in space or track or ladder. I don’t think that is true for almost anyone. No student has gaps, or we all have gaps. Math is not a ladder, it is a web. This means we can do intervention through big ideas, making connections through concepts. Yes, this is a crisis, but I think it is a crisis whose solution is increased access, not a rush for massive remediation.