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Improving Access to Mathematics: Diversity and Equity in the Classroom (Multicultural Education

reviewed by Walter G. Secada - June 22, 2007

coverTitle: Improving Access to Mathematics: Diversity and Equity in the Classroom (Multicultural Education
Author(s): Na'ilah Suad Nasir and Paul Cobb
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: 0807747297 , Pages: 224, Year: 2006
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From the 1960s through the 1980s, explanatory accounts for group-based differences in mathematics achievement (as measured through standardized tests, course taking, majors, and careers that require deep knowledge of mathematics) tended to be drawn upon notions of deficiency that, ultimately, became characteristics located within individuals who comprised the underachieving groups. Indeed, I still remember being encouraged to rely on the individual differences literature to account for the literature on achievement disparities when developing my chapter for the Handbook of Research on Teaching and Learning Mathematics (Secada, 1992).

Improving Access to Mathematics, edited by Na’ilah Suad Nasir and Paul Cobb shows how far the field of mathematics education has moved since those times. Instead of deficiency, the contributors shift their focus to student competence. This shift is best evidenced in Judith Moschkovich’s analysis of a bilingual student using the linguistic and mathematical tools at her disposal to provide a real mathematical explanation. Whereas earlier analyses would have focused on the student’s errors such as her use of “bad” vocabulary, Moschkovich’s example reminds us that language-in-use is always messy and that what should be more important is to understand the student’s intent to explain.

Earlier literature traced the sources of student incompetence to family-based deprivation; Marta Civil’s analysis turns this line of reasoning on its head by showing how familial funds of knowledge are a source of competence that can be used to develop mathematics curriculum. Civil also shows discomfort with the compromises that resulted when the teacher she worked with gave less salience to mathematics than she (Civil) would have liked. Civil’s experiences should serve as a tonic for ethnomathematicians and others who maintain that pulling the mathematics out of cross-disciplinary or highly contextualized settings is easy. [Mathematics in Context, referred to by Eric Gutstein in his chapter, was developed on the Dutch notion of realistic mathematics which position contexts as being “like” those found in the real world but not bogged down in the real world’s messiness at the expense of mathematics  (Streefland, 1991).]

Competence, also, can be found in many out of school settings. Extending the work of psychologists who studied the informal yet very sophisticated mathematical skills of unschooled individuals in a range of mercantile settings, Na’ila Suad Nasir shows how basketball players use mathematics (possibly without realizing it) in their every day practices.

The anthropological question arises: If in some settings people are quite competent, why do they seem incompetent in others? One response, found in Guida de Abreu and Tony Cline’s contribution, is that students simply do not see the value of what happens in schools. In another chapter, Danny Martin draws upon his extensive interviews with Keith and Gina to show how meta-narratives that would separate African Americans from mathematics can be traced to larger historical forces that have systematically sought to create an undereducated African American underclass.

Whereas the literature from the 1960s through the 1980s seems to portray students as passive recipients of knowledge, identity – the notion that one creates one’s own self but that creation is tied to one’s autobiography (and how one interprets it), one’s social position, and the historical forces that place one in that position – is central to the various chapters by Jo Boaler, Eric Gutstein, Na’ilah Suad Nasir, and by Paul Cobb and Lynn Liao Hodge. Identity comes into play in how students act within their classrooms, both shaping what students do and, in turn, being shaped by the classroom norms, dynamics, and values for what counts as doing mathematics. Students are actors and co-constructors of their fates. In Gutstein’s chapter, for example, students become very active in their own learning when they are challenged to use mathematics to question (and eventually to understand) the social forces that would limit their futures and their families’ access to mortgages.

Sarah Theule Lubienski’s chapter provides a much needed shift from the 1960s through the 1980s acceptance of social class differences by arguing that mathematics education reform may, in fact, exacerbate social class differences. A recent Brazilian study (de Costa, 2005) suggests that she may be right. Rochelle Gutierrez pushes our thinking even further by insisting that along almost any meaningful grouping (including international ones), we should be unable to find differences in mathematics achievement (however construed and measured).

During the 1960s, the individual seemed reduced to a psychological being whose traits and characteristics carried the weight of explaining and/or accounting for mathematics achievement differences – viz., the pressure on me to focus on individual differences. Improving Access to Mathematics provides a wealth of subtly nuanced alternatives for creating such accounts. Many derive from social-cultural theory, broadly construed; and other accounts derive from political analyses of social forces in which students find themselves. For recasting this important problem in new ways, this book is to be highly (re)commended.

It is temping to end my review of this important book by quoting a pop-cultural reference from the 1960s: “You/we’ve come a long way, baby.” However, even as we look back at equity research from the 1960s through 1980s as being hopelessly focused on what goes on between the student’s ears – mired in psychological explanations that, at the end of the day, seem to blame the victim – to account for achievement differences in mathematics, we should remember that the individuals who engaged in equity research at that time were, in their own ways and in their own times, as politically astute and as ground breaking as the authors of these chapters. Equity researchers from that era used the dominant research theories and tools from their times to create the spaces that made this book possible. The authors of Improving Access to Mathematics also use the dominant theories and tools of today to create another set of spaces; I end by wondering what use future scholars will make of these new efforts that will render this work, in its own turn, hopelessly out of date.


Da Costa, M. (2005). Limits to educational reform: Thinking from a Brazilian local experience. Paper presented at Global Conference on Education Research in Developing and Transition Countries, Prague, Czech Republic, March 31-April 2.

Secada, W. G. (1992). Race, ethnicity, social class, language, and achievement in mathematics.  In D. Grouws (Ed.), Handbook of research on teaching and learning mathematics (pp. 623-661). New York: Macmillan.

Streefland, L. (1991). Fractions in Realistic Mathematics Education: A Developmental Research. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: June 22, 2007
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 14528, Date Accessed: 12/4/2021 5:27:02 PM

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About the Author
  • Walter Secada
    University of Miami
    E-mail Author
    WALTER G. SECADA is Professor and Chair of the Department of Teaching and Learning at the University of Miami, FL. His scholarly interests include issues of equity in mathematics education, school restructuring, curriculum reform, and professional development of teachers. Currently, he is associate director of two major NSF-funded efforts at UM: (a) Promoting Science among English Language Learners (P-SELL) within a High Stakes Testing Environment which involves nearly 150 teachers in grades 3-5 in high-needs schools enrolling large numbers of Latino/a and Haitian students within the Miami-Dade County Public Schools and (b) Science Made Sensible, a professional development effort which pairs doctoral students in the sciences with science teachers in the feeder pattern to an MDCPS high school that enrolls large numbers of African American students. A fluent speaker of Spanish, he is also collaborating with an NGO in Lima Peru on studying achievement and school completion among that nationís indigenous populations in the rural altiplano.
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