We all see the world through the frame of meaning. We engage in activities we believe have meaning, value, and importance to us. Our desire for meaning is our desire for discovery of the world around us and our own strengths and limitations. The emotional act of discovering meaning is at the heart of everything we do everyday. Meaning is the greatest factor/driver of fulfillment. More than happiness, more than even achievements and profits, people want their lives to have value, and people who report higher levels of meaning are less anxious, healthier, and more satisfied of their lives. They are also less worried about others’ judgment of their values. In other words, they have the antidote to the effects of stereotype.
Ordinarily when others do not see value in our work, we may begin to doubt whether that activity is worth pursuing, particularly, in the stage before we have formed an autonomous self and acquired a healthy self-worth. However, when we see value in our work, we are not affected by the fear of value judgment by others and we persevere in the venture. For example, we learn because we see value and meaning in that learning.
We, as teachers and other adults in students’ lives, help provide value and meaning to our students’ learning. This becomes evident in the tasks we assign, the language we use in our teaching and the quality of our interactions with them, the type and number of questions we ask during teaching. It is also evident in the value we assign to their work through our assessments, the feedback we provide on their work (achievements and failures), and the type and nature of encouragement we give. Their learning is their work and through that they derive meaning. When they do not find the work in mathematics classes meaningful, neither on short-term basis (e.g., that particular class or test) or the long-term (e.g., the course or degree), they lose interest in that endeavor.
Therefore, teachers should have deep concern about the implicit and sometimes explicit bias in their teaching of mathematics and their classrooms. This bias is seen in the number of questions asked of different groups during teaching. When these questions are probing yet supportive and scaffolded, then they promote learning. The bias is also evident when there are low expectations. Setting high expectations is the mark of an effective teacher. They set tasks for them to de that are moderately challenging, but accessible. They assign projects that have meaning and purpose. They constantly monitor their students’ progress—their cognitive, affective, and psycho-motoric growth, in their classroom and their courses and program. They form groups that are welcoming, nurturing and collaborative, yet competitive in healthy ways. Their assessments are realistic with constructive, supportive suggestions.
A. The Problem: Math Stereotype and Its Impact
People’s fear and anxiety about math—over and above actual math ability—are impediments to their math achievement. Social conditions such as gender, class, race, and/or ethnic stereotypes about mathematics further compromise their achievements. The most prevalent are gender and gender stereotype that undermine female and minority participation in mathematics related activities.
Of particular concern are the low enrollment of females and minorities in higher mathematics (e.g., calculus, etc.) classes in high school and high attrition rates of undergraduates at colleges and universities from science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) majors. They drop out of STEM fields or fail to complete a degree in a STEM field.
The proportion of college freshmen intending to major in STEM fields has remained around 25 percent over the past 15 years. STEM degrees, as a proportion of total bachelor’s degrees have remained relatively constant at about 15-17 percent. The gap between the percent of freshmen intending to major in STEM fields and the percent of awarded bachelor’s degrees in these fields is a persistent and unwanted trend. Women, for example, earned about 18% of all computer science degrees and make up less than 25% of workers in engineering and computer-related fields. The number of degrees earned by African- and Hispanic American students is even lower. This is in stark contrast to the gains women have made in law, medicine, and other areas of the workforce.
While dearth of women and minorities in STEM fields is often attributed to lack of innate ability or lack of desire on their part, in most cases these are not the factors. Many attribute their decisions in part to the poor quality of instruction or lack of faculty interest in them, but the biggest factor is: gender and race stereotype that female and minority students do not do well on mathematics. Math stereotype and its impact is widespread.
The performance of high-achieving female math students on challenging math tests can be impaired by a social-psychological experience of stereotype threat. This “threat” occurs when a female student is taking a difficult math test, and the challenges she experiences with it bring to her mind negative stereotype about female math ability. Once female students identify with the stereotype, they feel they will be judged accordingly and their performance may confirm it.
Numerous experiments have found that the experience of stereotype threat is sufficiently distracting and upsetting to cause women to score lower on difficult math tests than equally skilled men. This threat works in the case of minority students as well. When individuals are confronted with a test or situation in which they are in danger of confirming a stereotype about their group, their performance plummets. For example, if one tells women that women generally score lower on particular math and spatial tests than men, they actually score lower on those tests than they would have had the stereotype not been made salient. However, when subjects are told that woman and men have the same ability on the particular test, the disparities in performance disappear and there are no gender differences in ratings of aptitude, assessments of competence, or interest in fields requiring that ability.
Research and experience of many math and science teachers and students alike show that stereotype has impact on learning. To understand and counteract the impact of this stereotype, it is important to understand this social phenomenon:
- When and how gender, race, ethnicity, and class stereotype about mathematics are formed?
- What is the effect of these stereotypes on mathematics learning, achievement and math anxiety?
- What can math educators do to minimize the effect of stereotype and provide math education that does not allow these stereotypes to happen?
The development of math stereotype is gradual and insidious. The psychological constructs behind this phenomenon are:
- formation of implicit self-concept—being aware of the presence of and personally experiencing stereotype in math learning situations,
- forming attitudes toward learning mathematics and its role in life as a result of these, and
- How and how much does the individual identify with math, as in “math is for me?”
This means to develop an antidote to this stereotype, our concern should be: Are we helping students to form healthy math self-concept?
Answers to these questions lie in a complex combination of social, cultural, and intellectual environmental factors. For example:
- Many students still consider studying math by some people as a “geeky” activity—not feminine,
- Many students have poor perception of the math major. They may not know how to study math. They may not know what is involved in learning math and related STEM fields. Why should one learn these subjects? What kinds of job do they lead to?
- Many students have negative reaction to feedback on math test and assessments—they believe that it is a difficult subject—difficult to get good grades—it is either right or not—so precise.
Such perceptions and beliefs drive many people away from mathematics and come in the way of attracting and keeping females and minorities.
For girls, lack of interest in mathematics may come both from overt and covert culturally communicated messages at home, classrooms and schools, about math being more appropriate for boys than for girls. In many research studies, almost half of participants report believing that men are “better at math” than women—whereas less than 1% report that women are better!
The “math is for boys” stereotype has been used as part of the explanation for why so few women pursue STEM careers. The cultural stereotype may nudge girls, albeit initially quite subtly, to think, “math is not for me,” which can affect what activities (toys, games, hobbies, readings, projects, etc.) they engage in and the career aspirations they may develop.
The ethnic, race and class stereotype are also socio-cultural that African-American and Hispanic-American children are perceived to have lack of interest and pre-requisite skills in mathematics and the Asian-American children are expected to do well on mathematics is also socially transmitted in our schools. Children from higher socio-economic backgrounds, because of their better communication skills, are given the benefit of doubt that they may be better in mathematics as they take lead in asking and answering questions.
One can observe or capture a stereotype behavior by measuring, for example, how strongly a person associates various academic subjects with either masculine or feminine connotations. The stronger the stereotype is, the faster the response to such questions. Researchers have examined three key concepts: Gender identity, or the association of “me” with male or female; math-gender stereotype, or the association of math with male or female; and math self-concept, or the association of “me” with math or reading.
When children are asked to sort four kinds of words: boy names, girl names, math words and reading words, children expressing the math-gender stereotype should be faster to sort words when boy names are paired with math words and girl names are paired with reading words. Similarly, they should be slower to respond when math words are paired with girl names and reading words are paired with boy names. As early as second grade, children (particularly, American children) demonstrate the stereotype for math: boys associate math with their own gender while girls associate math with boys.
On self-concept formation, boys identify themselves with math more than girls do. Even on self-report tests on all three concepts children give similar responses. Cultural stereotype about math is absorbed strikingly early in development, prior to ages at which there are gender differences in math achievement.
The discrepancy, in part, could be due to socio-cultural factors: home, classroom and school environmental influences, geographical variables—urban, rural, and suburban (e.g., the quality of teacher preparation in urban and rural areas is inferior compared to suburban schools), historical, teacher and pedagogical biases, assessment and recognition systems in schools.
The differences in math and science achievements of minorities and females have serious implications for the future careers of these groups and the size of the pool of innovative, research scientists. It has been a source of concern for educators everywhere.
Much of human progress depends on innovation. It depends on people coming up with breakthrough ideas to improve life. We have seen the impact of the invention of wheel, pulley, steam, penicillin or cancer treatments, electricity or the silicon chip. For this reason, societies have a big interest in making sure that as many people as possible have the opportunity to become scientists, inventors, innovators, and entrepreneurs. It is not just a matter of fairness. Denying opportunities to talented people can hurt everyone.
If we do not do something about it, women, African-Americans, Latinos, and low- and middle-income children are far less likely to grow up to become innovators and inventors. Our society appears to be missing out on potential inventors from these groups. We do a very good job at identifying and retaining children who are good at throwing a football or playing a trumpet. But we do not do even a satisfactory job of identifying children who have the potential of creating a phenomenal new product, service, invention, or a discovery. As a result, we all suffer—the whole society loses.
Stereotype and Self-assessment and Self-value
The negative stereotype about women and minorities can hinder their performance, depress their self-assessments of their ability, and bias the evaluations made by key decision makers. Combination of these effects can subtly influence the aspirations and career decisions, keeping them away from degrees and careers in STEM subjects.
If a person is exposed to a negative stereotype about a group to which she belongs (e.g. women, Asians, African-Americans, etc.), she will then perform worse on tasks related to the stereotype. This is particularly problematic for women in the STEM fields, as there are many societal beliefs about how women do not have strong mathematical ability and about how men make better engineers and scientists.
This has significant implications for real-world situations; for instance, when women are asked to indicate their gender before taking the AP Calculus exam, it is enough to trigger stereotype threat and significantly suppress their scores whereas it does not have the same effect when this condition is not there. Thus, more women would receive AP Calculus credit in the first year of their college program if the stereotype was not present. This demonstrates the powerful effect of negative stereotype on performance.
Negative stereotype can lower self-assessments of ability and leads individuals to judge their performance by a harsher standard. Beyond diminishing performance and self-assessments of ability, stereotype lowers their goals and ambitions. These effects make women less likely to enter STEM fields because they are less likely to believe they have the skills necessary for a particular career and less likely to develop preferences for that career.
Disconnect with Ability and Achievement
Cognitive, neurological, and educational research indicate that there is no reason why women, for example, cannot succeed in mathematically demanding fields, including advanced research, serious and useful applications, and innovation. Despite these conclusions, women and several groups of minorities still are underrepresented in advanced levels in STEM related fields.
On most international assessments, females outscore males on language: reading, literacy, and verbal skills usage in every country and continue to exhibit higher verbal ability throughout high school. On the other hand, although there are no significant differences between the performance of boys and girls up to fourth grade on mathematics, boys begin to perform better than girls on science and math ability tests beyond fourth grade. The reading gender-gaps narrow during the upper elementary grades, but gender gaps in math achievement and development of negative attitudes towards math grow. The possible explanations for these phenomena are:
- there is no stereotype in reading abilities,
- although small stereotype exists in mathematics abilities as early as first and second grade, children may not observe them overtly and may not have yet internalized their role and impact, however,
- children begin to discern and act on these behaviors by age ten and above.
The results of the stereotype —low achievements and avoidance of math related activities, increase with age.
Similarly, this disconnect with ability and achievement is evident in the case of Hispanic children. For example, Hispanic bilingual children have higher level of executive function skills than their monolingual counterparts as preschoolers and continue to have this advantage even later. Whereas, executive functions (EF) are an important aspect of school readiness that have been shown to predict higher achievement in language, math, and science starting in the early years. But, by third grade many of them are doing poorly in arithmetic. This association has been found among children of different ages, languages, and socioeconomic statuses. These findings can help inform teachers and policy-makers that these children are capable of doing well, the only reasons one can give are factors outside of them. These social factors may involve low expectations, poor instruction, lack of support, and stereotype they experience.
Teachers’ Math Anxiety and Stereotype
Research has found that girls’ math achievement is lower if they have a female teacher who is anxious about math. This may be because the girls in such classrooms pick up on gender stereotype earlier. A large number of early elementary school teachers in the United States are female (>90%) and the percentage of math anxious individuals in that group is larger than average. Many of them may not understand the true nature of mathematics learning and the developmental trajectories of important mathematics concepts and procedures.
Arithmetic has been in use for such a long time that many concepts and procedures are taken for granted by most people and math anxious teachers may find it difficult to explain the reasons and concepts behind them. Therefore, many of them only emphasize the computational (e.g., procedures, recipes, short-cuts, mnemonic devices, and “tricks”, etc.) aspect of arithmetic rather than developing the language, conceptual schemas, and then computational procedures. They may teach only simplistic methods rather than focus on deep structures, patterns, concepts, and the true nature of mathematics. They may not realize that math is the study of patterns in quantity and space. For example, arithmetic is the study of patterns in quantity—number concept, numbersense, and numeracy; geometry is the study of patterns in shapes and their relationships; probability is the study of patterns in chance and possibilities; algebra is the study of patterns and relationships in variability; and calculus is the study of patterns in rate of change, etc.
A math anxious female teacher’s math anxiety has impact on girls’ math achievement through the process of girls’ forming perceptions, attitudes, and beliefs about mathematics (e.g., who is good at math early on through these identifications). Many a times, female teachers fail to observe girls’ novel strategies in math and do not encourage them. This may happen because they may not see these strategies as novel. However, it happens in the case of boys also, but boys generally persist in advocating for their strategies. Teachers with math anxieties may also have lower expectations from girls. They may justify and rationalize a girl’s poor mathematics performance with the belief that “girls are supposed to be poor in mathematics.” In addition, observations suggest that when boys and girls have the same math performance and behaviors in math classes, teachers perceive and express sometimes overtly and other times covertly that the boys are better at math. This “differential rating and mental evaluation” of boys and girls contributes to gender-gaps in math performance.
This is not to suggest that teachers are to blame for gender differences in math performance. Teachers’ views simply reflect those of society as a whole.
When math achievement of the students in math anxious teachers’ classrooms is assessed a very important phenomenon is observed. Although there is no relation between a teacher’s math anxiety and her students’ math achievement and attitude about mathematics at the beginning of the school year, by the school year’s end, however, the more anxious the teacher is about math, the more likely the girls (but not boys) are to endorse the commonly held stereotype that “boys are good at math, and girls are good at reading.” This is particularly true about the girls with lower math achievement. Indeed, by the end of the school year, girls who endorse this stereotype have significantly worse math achievement than girls who do not and than boys overall. Thus, in early elementary school, where the teachers are almost all female, teachers’ math anxiety carries serious consequences for girls’ math achievement by influencing girls’ beliefs about who is good at math.
Research has been mixed about whether today’s children hold gender stereotypes about math at the same level as in the past. Children often report being aware of gender stereotype about mathematics, but they less often indicate that they believe the stereotype. Attitudes towards math may have changed as many parents and educators are beginning to take proactive actions about these matters.
Classroom Environments and Stereotype
Beyond math anxiety, other characteristics about teachers and classroom environments also have been identified as contributors to this gender gap. Students from middle to high school on surveys and interviews identify a math or science teacher as a person who made math, science, or engineering interesting to them. At the same time, many female students report the classroom environments not conducive to their becoming as successful math and science students. For example, many report being passed over in classroom discussions, not being encouraged to have high expectations of themselves and by the teacher, and made to feel inadequate and incompetent.
Classroom environments can be made to feel more female-friendly by:
- helping students to develop prerequisite skills (sequencing, spatial/orientation space organization, pattern recognition and extensions, visualization, estimation, deductive and inductive reasoning) for mathematics learning in order to neutralize gender and socio-economic differences,
- incorporating cooperative competitions, public discussion and sharing of their strategies, thinking and practices in solving problems,
- teacher paying focused attention to achievement for all, and, in particular, on female and minority math achievement,
- having high expectations for all and to encourage students to have high expectations of themselves,
- using appropriate, efficient and universal concrete/visual models for mathematics teaching and learning and retiring them when the students have generated the language, developed the conceptual schemas, and have arrived at efficient and effective procedures,
- exposing students to female and minority role models,
- using non-threatening, non-discriminatory, and constructive assessment methods, and
- using nonsexist, non-racist books and materials.
Stereotype threat may emerge even during everyday experiences. The performance of female students decreases with the stereotype threat, for example, when a woman takes a math test in a room with two male test-takers rather than two other women. Other researchers have also found similar reductions in test performance among women who, before taking a difficult math test, are asked to watch TV commercials that depict women in a trivializing ways, that is, in ways that are inconsistent with the stereotype about being good at math. This suggests that the experience of stereotype threat contributes to women’s lower standardized math test scores and to their decreased persistence in quantitative fields in multiple settings. Therefore, to stay in STEM fields and to be successful, they have to exercise a higher level of effort, energy—both psychic and cognitive. Classroom environment can play an important role in this.
B. Other Social Factors for Lower Math Achievement
Stereotype causes some of the math anxiety, particularly, in the case of many women and minorities. However, there are also other factors for the low participation by women and minorities.
Quality of Interaction and Stereotype
Some of this bias is also evident in the applications of mathematics to other disciplines—the kinds of applications we expose our students to engage. Minority students are not shown meaningful scientific applications, fewer girls are in robotic exhibitions and applications. Our choices of applications show class and gender bias in exposure to extracurricular situations (i.e., for female and minority students the membership in clubs, math competitions, math Olympiads, etc.) are low. This minimizes and marginalizing the voices of female and minority students in mathematics education, higher education and later in the work place.
Children assimilate the stereotype exhibited by parents, educators, peers, toys and games, and the media and in turn, they may exhibit the same later in their dealings with others—classmates, younger students, and later as subordinates. To fight this, we should depict math as being equally accessible to boys and girls of all backgrounds by treating all students in the classrooms the same way—to helping them to reach their potential. We should help broaden the interests and aspirations of all our children.
To counter stereotype that students may bring to the classroom, teachers should always look for opportunities to promote positive gender and minority representations and give their students a broader perspective on their options and capabilities in mathematics and related subject areas. For instance, gender representation should not mean only showing what women can do but also what men can do in an activity that is seen as stereo-typically female activity.
Emphasizing that participation for females in STEM related fields is important may be the key to increasing the number of participants, but what is even more important is to demonstrate what are the skills needed to succeed in these fields and then how the skills gained in these programs will help them to find and get jobs in careers that they may want to pursue and then to succeed.
There is need for all teachers and specially the mathematics teachers, to educate our youth, particularly female and minority students, to understand what is involved in STEM disciplines and what set of skills can make them successful. In the world of information technology (IT), for example, that means that students should be shown directly how STEM educational tracks will help them pursue jobs in IT administration, software development, systems integration, product development, communication, and related fields.
Many middle and high school students are not even aware of what is involved in STEM related jobs. For example, surveys show that almost half of them do not even know anyone who has a job in STEM fields and 1 in 4 has never spoken to anyone about jobs in STEM fields. Almost half of them do not know what kinds of math jobs exist and almost 3 out of 4 do not even know what engineers do in their work. Almost 9 out of 10 of these young people think that people who study STEM subjects work at organizations like NASA, and almost half think that people with such backgrounds work for computer and Internet related companies only.
Only about 1 in 4 believe that people with STEM backgrounds might work for consumer companies like super-markets, non-profit organizations, insurance companies, banks, and entertainment fields, such as gaming.
To change the trend of women abandoning the STEM fields, is to re-brand and redefine the kinds of job tracks and careers that STEM education can lead to for students across the nation. Programs offering expanded educational opportunities for students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics should be seen as the incubators where young people can delve into these subjects more deeply, while showing them and opening wide options for their careers.
Because of these misunderstandings and serious shortages of qualified candidates to fill STEM jobs in a wide swath of industries, employers, educators and human resource professionals should clarify what STEM entails and how widespread the job possibilities in these fields are. Companies seeking STEM workers, schools, teachers and parents can all contribute to making these shifts happen. They should visit schools to create interest and encourage students to put more effort in and develop positive attitudes toward these fields. Industry and STEM researchers need to explain these opportunities to students in depth, including clear information about what kinds of jobs and careers can be pursued with skills and degrees in science, technology, engineering and math. They should share with them their education and their career trajectories.
Mathematics classes should be more creative so that students can get more engaged and interested in exploring a variety of STEM fields and careers. Teachers should invite business representatives involved with STEM related careers and decision making to their classrooms to discuss STEM careers and they should share the worker needs in STEM fields.
Stereotype and Course and Degree Choices
Gender and race differences are evident in course choices, degree options, and projects selected for internships and research. These differences specifically affect certain groups at the higher levels of math and science. This is evident in enrollments in majors in mathematics and computer sciences, in areas of research and innovation, and in fields of mathematics applications—modeling and problem solving. Females enter STEM areas at the undergraduate level, but many of them leave at the graduate and research levels. For example, men are much more likely than women to pursue graduate degrees, post-graduate research, and careers in STEM fields and economics.
Complex cultural, social, political, and economic factors contribute in the selection of majors of study and career choices for individuals. Reasons and questions behind career choices, wage gaps and the disparities in representations of minorities and women in some STEM require multifaceted answers. For example, professions based on biological and medical sciences have mostly achieved equitable representations of male and female, but mathematics, engineering, and physics have significantly lower female representations. This is also true in history, finance and accounting.
Despite higher percentages of females attempting to enter STEM fields, issues related to stereotypes in schools and higher education and discrimination in the work place continue to exist. These can create hostile environments and gaps in offering challenging and interesting opportunities, meaningful advancements, and adequate compensation increases in comparison to their male counterparts.
The inhospitable climate is partly a result of STEM field’s imbalanced gender and race ratios. For example, women make up only a quarter of employees and about a tenth of executives in the tech industry. There have, of course, been other male-dominated fields notorious for similar environments, including Wall Street and Madison Avenue. But, part of what differentiates tech is the industry’s self-regard, as a realm of visionary futurists and tireless innovators who are making many aspects of the world better. In many ways, the tech world does represent the future—it is defining the future and its contours from social interaction to how do we learn, live and work. It has attracted the most promising and creative mathematicians, engineers, and scientists. That should assure that they would have influence over the nation’s ideas and values for years to come. It’s deeply troubling, then, that many of these companies have created an internal culture that, at least when it comes to gender and race inequality, resembles the past rather than the future.
Tech companies have been promising to improve their hiring of women and underrepresented minorities for nearly two decades. Hiring women, blacks and Latinos is apparently so challenging for these companies that the vice-president of diversity and inclusion for a leading tech company lowered the bar by saying that it is difficult find qualified individuals. Despite challenges, they need to redouble their efforts. They need to collaborate with schools, colleges, and universities.
Investigations on sexism, racism, and ethnic stereotypes in STEM fields demonstrate the bias and stereotyping, and later it turns into the multi-faceted repression experienced by women and minorities. That forces many to quit these fields. For example, men in academia act as gatekeepers. People, by virtue of their positions, have the ability to keep members of certain groups from achieving their full potential. This gatekeeper bias has real consequences. Many female and minority scholars leave the field or they get so disappointed that they do not actively encourage other female or minority graduate students or younger scholars to stay in the field. Studies show that academic colloquium speakers are more likely to be men than women, even when controlling for rank and representation of men and women in the disciplines that sponsor the events. Men give more than twice as many colloquium talks over all (69 percent) as do women (31 percent).
The question is what measures can we take to minimize, root out, and create environments that do not foster such situations in future and then create the learning environments that anyone can be part of innovation, if they desire.
Mathematics as a Gateway to STEM Fields
In the spring of 1986, during a professional development workshop for the faculty of the newly established Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy, Noble laureate, physicist Leon Lederman introduced my workshop on mathematics learning by emphasizing that at the base of all sciences is mathematics. Mathematics is the key to the study of physics, physics explains chemistry and chemistry, in turn, is the basis of understanding biology. Physics and mathematics lead to engineering, whereas, biology and chemistry with the help of mathematics tools lead to understanding microbiology, neurology, and medicine. The base of the pyramid of STEM is mathematics.
Today, even academic fields such as anthropology, psychology, and history rely on mathematical modeling, for example, two to three decades ago, one would see a rare equation, graph or table in an undergraduate textbook in these subjects. Today mathematical modeling—quantitative and qualitative representations using variables, patterns analysis, graphs, tables, charts, equations, and inequalities are common in most academic fields. Of course, the organization and serious study of economics and business is impossible without high level of competence in mathematics, particularly application of mathematical modeling and processes.
STEM fields are the gateway to equity, equality, and major means of participating fully in society. Throughout history, in every century, the latest technologies have generated the maximum number of jobs, most wealth, and higher living standards. Technologies change and reorganize the social structures in a country and now internationally. With appropriate skills in the latest technologies one can be on the forefront of this change. With mathematics competence all sciences are within the reach of a person. Mathematics, thus, is the gateway to STEM and related fields. Mathematics teachers, at all levels, need to make access and equity as their goal in their interactions with students and mathematics.
Many math teachers and math departments in schools and colleges, in a very long tradition, have made mathematics the gatekeeper to many interesting fields. It started when Socrates’ Academy displayed a motto: “No one not well-versed in geometry enter this academy.” We, as math teachers, place hurdles in the path of students’ entry into mathematics particularly for those who do not have the appropriate preparation, attitude, or achievement. Teachers in STEM fields also traditionally view themselves as gatekeepers, choosing the elite students who deserve to be scientists, engineers or doctors — and discarding everybody else. It begins very early in school where rather than challenging all students to interesting problems we assign children to various groups according to ill-defined criteria and abilities.
We need to transform mathematics teaching (e.g., courses, programs, pedagogy, etc.) from a gatekeeper function to a gateway to more mathematics and STEM fields. The aim of math education should be to foster student empowerment—developing critical constructs of mathematics identity, agency, and teaching mathematics as a major instrument for social justice—for access. Our students should learn math as a tool for solving problems—both personal and social. For example, algebra in eighth grade, for many should be a civil rights issue. Without mathematics competence, we create “third world” economies, living standards, and opportunities in the midst of the “first world.” On the other hand, fortunately, mathematics is creating “first worlds” in the midst of “third worlds” in many places, in several countries.
Current mathematics education often reinforces, rather than moderates, inequalities in education and preparation for life and careers. Effective mathematics education not only should moderate inequalities but should also seek to remove the structural obstacles that stand in the way of achieving equitable outcomes.