“Promoting student engagement (by, e.g., selecting challenging tasks, exerting intense effort and concentration in the implementation of tasks), framing mathematics within the growth mindset, acknowledging student contributions, and attending to culture and language play substantial roles in equalizing mathematics gains between poor and non-poor students (Battey 2013; Cross et. al. 2012; Kisker et al. 2012; Robinson 2013).”
– Principles to Actions: Ensuring Mathematical Success for All. NCTM, National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, 2014.
My math colleagues and I receive regular, profound professional development from Teachers Development Group, focused on applying what the research says about math learning to our daily practices. All of this research is succinctly packaged in the NCTM publication Principles to Actions. If your work requires you to consider math teaching in any way, shape, or form, you need to have a copy of this text at arms length at all times (And you really need to consider reaching out to Teachers Development Group to support you in enacting said research).
The beauty of Principles to Actions comes across in what initially appears to be straight-forward, no-nonsense, single sentence summaries of ground-breaking research, just like the quote above. When I read that quote, I am struck by the profound power that comes from it’s simple structure: Do these things and all students will succeed. Open any page and you’ll find such statements. I’m choosing to focus on this one in particular because today I want to think about status – in the math classroom, in the school system, and in the way we view the necessary shift to transferable skills.
Sometimes I wish I had some sort of device, like a black light, that I could sweep across my classroom. But instead of picking up splatters of questionable material, it would illuminate with a sickening glow the status that I aim to eliminate each and every day. A student raises their hand (splat) and asks, “Is my answer right?” (plop). Another student stays quiet when given twenty five seconds to share their idea with a partner (sploosh). One student says “Oh, I get it” after listening to another student explain their thinking (glorp). Status oozes from most interactions in a math classroom because society perpetuates the idea that “there’s always a right answer in math”; that it’s perfectly fine, and in fact sometimes a badge of honor, to say “I’m not good at math”; that inevitably there is that one person in the class who will “get it” and if we just wait on that person to speak, then we’ve done our job as students; that the teacher’s role is to show students how to perform an algorithm, and the students role is to practice the steps.
These issues of status are perpetuated in the school system when schools resort to levels and tracking (there’s a whole section on this in Principles to Actions). Status breeds competition and creates a hierarchy that inflates and deflates egos in staff and students alike. These rifts fall along lines of socioeconomic status, race, gender, sexual orientation, age, and every other social construct that has ever been used to discriminate against a “group” of people. Our measures of success and readiness, such as high school graduation and college acceptance, rely on this hierarchy of status to determine what doors get opened for whom. No doubt, I’m banging on a drum that’s just about worn through, but we can’t seem to let go of this self imposed prison of status for the life of us.
Teaching to research, as opposed to teaching to our biased opinions about perceived abilities, equalizes mathematical gains between poor and non-poor students. Hundreds of hours of intentional, scientific research has confirmed this. It says it right there in that quote! There is no student who cannot learn mathematics to a highly rigorous degree. So why do we continue to allow institutions to exist that were intentionally built to restrict access? Why do we continue to defer status to individuals who do not practice what the research says?
The shift to transferable skills requires a reckoning with status. When a school begins to earnestly implement proficiency based grading of transferable skills, our traditional identifiers of status are revealed as inequitable. What is “class rank” when GPAs disappear? How do you choose a “valedictorian” from an entire class of individuals who have each demonstrated mastery in their own, personal ways in their own, personal interests? What is a “head of the department” when the main focus is to teach a transferable skill, something that is inherently shared by all departments? How does a standardized test score honestly measure the academic worth of an individual who spent their time in school developing projects that have a real impact on their community and their own growth as a civic-minded member of our nation?
Let me be clear, there is a distinction between status and prestige. Status, as I am viewing it, is a fixed relational aspect of an individual. Status says that at this moment in time someone is the best, someone is the worst, and we need to conform our social interactions based on this ranking. Prestige, however, is an honor bestowed upon someone because they have excelled at something special. Prestige can lead to status based on how it is viewed and utilized, but when approached correctly, should bring people together. I find the honor of being named the 2019 Vermont State Teacher of the Year to be prestigious. I hope my voice doesn’t get misconstrued as a symbol of status. If it does, I hope you would let me know.
Status has led us to the largest wealth gap since the Great Depression and has left huge swaths of the population disenchanted and frustrated. Status continually marginalizes, distorts, and erodes the promise of our future generations. A line can be drawn from those small moments of status-laden interactions in our classrooms to the state of our collective response to global climate change. By adhering to research, implementing status-reducing practices, and championing transferable skills above all else, we can find our way to a future that is less dire than the one currently predicted.
Are you willing to forgo status for the benefit of us all? Are you willing to see the great potential in everyone you meet? Are you willing to see the future, brightly illuminated by diversity, and smile?