Leaving No Child Behind Yet Allowing None Too Far Ahead: Ensuring (In)Equity in Mathematics Education Through the Science of Measurement and Instruction
by Mark W Ellis — 2008
Background/Context: For the past century, mathematics education in the United States has been effective at producing outcomes mirroring society’s historical inequities. The enactment of the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001 was intended to address these differential educational outcomes. Given the scope of this legislation’s impact on the way in which states, districts, and schools evaluate mathematics learning and conceptualize reforms in the teaching of mathematics, it is critical to examine the possible effects this may have on how mathematical proficiency is determined and distributed.
Purpose/Objective/Research Question/Focus of Study: This inquiry raises questions about the manner in which the No Child Left Behind Act aims to improve mathematics education through an increased reliance on “objective” science. Specifically, the argument put forth here is that the policies of the No Child Left Behind Act leverage and intensify the “dividing practices” instituted in the early 20th century as a means of justifying the differential stratification of students in schools, thereby making equitable educational outcomes less likely than not. The questions guiding this inquiry are: How did these dividing practices first develop? What are the taken-for-granted assumptions under which they operate? How might technologies related to these practices, given renewed status due to the requirements of the NCLB Act, impact mathematics education?
Research Design: This inquiry takes the format of an analytic essay, drawing on both a historical perspective of efforts to improve education in the United States through a reliance on scientific methods, and an examination of recent evidence as to how the No Child Left Behind legislation’s policies are bring implemented in relation to the assessment and teaching of mathematics.
Conclusions/Recommendations: Although the intent of the No Child Left Behind legislation is to identify schools in which students are not being educated well and to compel improvement, its approach to doing so is built on a model from which long-standing disparities were constructed in the first place. The use of high-stakes standardized testing and direct instruction (DI) methods of teaching—both likely effects of the policies of the NCLB Act—reify the idea that mathematics is something to be put into students’ heads, apart from their lived experiences and daily lives. This approach to mathematics education provides a rationale for students’ (continued) stratification within an “objective” system of standardized testing and instruction. When considering reforms that aim to reduce inequities in educational outcomes, particularly in mathematics, forms of assessment and instruction must be developed and promoted that get away from the divisiveness of the traditional truth games and move toward a focus on students making sense of mathematics in ways that are meaningful, flexible, and connected to their sense of self.
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