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Mathematics Teacher Education in the Public Interest: Equity and Social Justice

reviewed by Marian Small - May 10, 2013

coverTitle: Mathematics Teacher Education in the Public Interest: Equity and Social Justice
Author(s): Laura J. Jacobson, Jean Mistele, & Bharath Sriraman
Publisher: Information Age Publishing, Charlotte
ISBN: 1617359688, Pages: 300, Year: 2012
Search for book at Amazon.com

This book is likely to be of interest to two different groups. One group is mathematics educators, particularly those involved in pre-service education, whose involvement in equity and social justice issues has not been significant; they are likely to see a side of mathematics they had not deeply considered. For these mathematics educators, the critical importance of attending to the social/cultural environment of the classroom is often overlooked in short, dense teacher preparation courses that are focused on helping pre-service teachers re-conceptualize their views of what mathematics is. Even more so, for these educators, the potential of mathematics to help uncover issues of social injustice is simply not on the radar. The other group is the large number of non-math educators who are likely to share the view of many described in this book that mathematics is a logical, precise and certain field of knowledge where there is no room for considering social matters; they, too, will have their eyes opened.

The editors speak to their interest in serving the public interest by addressing equity and social justice in mathematics education, by diversifying student interest and participation in mathematics, and by broadening and enriching the ways in which mathematics is viewed as a discipline. The eleven chapters, dealing with these three issues well, are organized into three main themes- respecting individuals and communities in mathematics education, ensuring children’s opportunities to learn mathematics, and promoting community and social justice with mathematics. The various authors take quite different directions, affording a broad continuum of ideas upon which the reader can reflect.

There are a number of themes addressed by several authors. For example, in different ways, a number of authors speak to the disconnect when largely young white middle class women teach students from other cultures and language groups without a deep understanding of those cultures or how it feels to learn in a second language. The teachers’ backgrounds make it difficult for them to help their students see how people in their communities might actually use mathematics in their lives and how they would benefit from learning the mathematics being considered. This disconnect is exacerbated when much of the educational literature to which pre-service teachers are exposed suggests a world of resource-rich classrooms that are not necessarily the reality these teachers will experience or suggest contexts which are not part of many of their students’ realities.

Several authors speak to the stereotypical views society holds about mathematics that get in the way of effective teaching of mathematics to all. These include beliefs about gender differences (Thomson et al., 2011), beliefs about whether it is our innate ability that leads to mathematics success or our hard work (Dweck, 2000), and beliefs about what mathematics actually is and where it is used (Sleeter,1997). Particularly interesting is the discussion about how difficult it is for pre-service teachers to think of uses of mathematics that are not “obvious” until their eyes are opened by working with members of the community who do use mathematics in other ways.

One chapter, in particular, speaks to the dangers of ability grouping and even, potentially, differentiating instruction, in perpetuating social injustice. The authors speak persuasively about the literature that shows that ability grouping is negative for most students, and especially the most fragile learners (Oakes, et al., 1990; Boaler, 2007), and the fact that society simply dismisses those findings. Other authors focus on student identity in the mathematics classroom as well as social status in the mathematics classroom (viewing a student as “smart” in mathematics or not) and the effect these can have on student learning (or not learning); there is a persuasive argument that having pre-service teachers reflect on social status in the math classroom can lead to real and positive change.

Many authors clearly value the potential of the discourse-rich, inquiry-based classroom that is being promoted by mathematics educators who are seeking opportunities for students to learn math with a deeper conceptual understanding (NCTM, 2000). They also support the need to engage pre-service teachers with specialized mathematics knowledge for teaching (Hill, Rowan, & Ball, 2005). But they make it clear that they feel that this is simply not enough. They strongly believe in the need to include attention to equity and social justice in those courses. In many chapters, examples are given where authors are working out a balance between focusing on social justice and equity issues and ensuring pre-service teachers develop the deeper content understanding that they require to teach mathematics effectively.

A number of interesting and specific suggestions are provided for activities to engage pre-service teachers in the communities of their students and in reflecting on the impact of various teaching stances. Many authors indicate the difficulty of this work and how changes in the beliefs of student teachers are not always easy to achieve, but that there is some hope. They point to the need to mix discomforting experiences with acceptance and compassion.

Certain parts of the book were more expressions of the strong beliefs of the authors about the lack of attention to social justice in education, particularly in the U.S., than research reports or suggestions for steps that could be taken, but these were more the exception than the rule. Overall, there are a number of interesting ideas to contemplate about how to enrich typical mathematics education courses to prepare teachers and to help non-mathematics pre-service educators to see the potential to broaden a college’s focus on social justice and equity to the mathematics classroom too.


Boaler, J. (2007). Promoting “relational equity” and high mathematics

achievement through an innovative mixed-ability approach. British

Educational Research Journal, 34 (2), 167 – 194.

Dweck, C. (2000). Self-theories: Their role in motivation, personality and

development. Philadelphia, PA: Taylor and Francis/Psychology Press.

Hill, H.C., Rowan, B., & Ball, D.L. (2005). Effects of teachers’ mathematical

knowledge for teaching on student achievement. American Educational

Research Journal, 42(2), 371- 406.

National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) (2000). Principles and

standards for school mathematics. Reston, Virginia: NCTM.

Oakes, J., Ormseth, T., Bell, R., & Camp, P. (1990). Multiplying inequalities: The

effects of race, social class, and tracking on opportunities to learn

mathematics and science.  Santa Monica, CA: Rand.

Sleeter, C. (1997). Mathematics, multicultural education and professional

development. Journal for Research in Mathematics Education, 28(6), 680-


Thomson, S., De Bertoli, L., Nicholas, M., Hillman, K., & Buckley, S. (2011).

Challenges for Australian education: Results from PISA 2009. Melbourne,

Australia: ACER. Retrieved from http://www.acer.edu.au/documents/PISA-


Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: May 10, 2013
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 17119, Date Accessed: 5/27/2022 11:12:03 AM

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About the Author
  • Marian Small
    University of New Brunswick
    E-mail Author
    MARIAN SMALL is Dean and Professor Emerita of Education at the University of New Brunswick in Canada. She has written extensively in the area of mathematics education at both the elementary and secondary levels, including Good Questions: Great Ways to Differentiate Mathematics Instruction (2009), second edition (2012), More Good Questions: Great Ways to Differentiate Secondary Mathematics Instruction (2010), and Eyes on Math (2012), published by Teachers College Press.
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