Disparities in learning opportunities based on race, class, language, gender, and perceived mathematical ability are far too prevalent in school mathematics in North America and must be addressed. The evidence is compelling that students who are identified as Black, Latinx, Indigenous, language learners, poor, with disabilities, and other marginalized learners do not have the same access to a high-quality mathematics program as their peers. The practices, structures, and traditions that have and continue to embody and characterize middle school mathematics, as well as PK–12 mathematics, are deeply rooted. This deserves thoughtful attention and examination by all stakeholders.

Imagine a middle school where each and every student loves learning about mathematics. Teachers in the school implement equitable, just, and inclusive teaching practices by leveraging students’ backgrounds, experiences, cultural perspectives, traditions, and mathematical strengths to build individual and collective understanding. At this school, the focus is on the quality of mathematical learning experiences rather than the quantity of problems assigned to students. Mathematics is seen as a collaborative endeavor where students tackle meaningful mathematical and real-world problems in ways that empower them as informed members of a democratic society. Manipulatives, tools, and technologies are used frequently in ways that support student reasoning and sense making. Students see mathematics as a key component of their everyday life and understand how important being a mathematical thinker and doer is and will continue to be in their professional and personal lives. Teachers and leaders in the school see mathematics as a gateway to students’ success, not a gatekeeper. School mathematics is also connected to students’ out-of-school experiences where families and communities are key partners in supporting students’ learning of mathematics. What would it take to accomplish this type of middle school mathematics learning experience? While many individual educators are already deeply engaged in transforming middle school mathematics in powerful ways, collective action is needed. Every middle school has this potential, and it is our shared responsibility to make it a reality for each and every student.

Catalyzing Change in Middle School Mathematics is grounded in the belief that each and every student is capable of engaging in rigorous and challenging mathematics (encompassing both mathematics and statistics throughout this document) if provided access to a high-quality mathematics program. Such high-quality middle school mathematics programs attend carefully to students’ transition from the elementary grades as well as recognize their needs as young adolescents. As students transition from elementary to middle school, they experience rapid development as young adolescents in ways that are physical, cognitive, moral, psychological, and socio-emotional (Association for Middle Level Education [AMLE] 2010; Eccles et al. 1993). Because of this multifaceted transformation, middle school mathematics should intentionally challenge students in meaningful ways, be responsive to students’ development, and be respectful of students’ needs and interests (Lipstitz and West 2006; Lounsbury 2015). A focus on the development of students’ positive mathematical identities and strong sense of mathematical agency is crucial in middle school (identity and agency are defined in chapter 2, page 9 and page 12, respectively). This document focuses primarily on grades 6 to 8 but recognizes that middle school sometimes includes grades 5 and 9, which are addressed in other volumes of the Catalyzing Change Series.

Progress Needed in Middle School Mathematics

Catalyzing Change in Middle School Mathematics aims to accelerate progress in the quality of experiences of students, their teachers, and their families to ensure students are well prepared with the mathematical literacy they require and deserve for both their current and future personal and professional lives. Such quality experiences are equitable, just, and inclusive and rightfully position each and every student as human beings empowered and inspired by mathematics.

The Catalyzing Change Series is different from previous documents that call for change in mathematics education: it takes an approach designed to challenge and encourage stakeholders to critically examine their mathematics program in a holistic way in order to take the necessary steps to uproot inequitable structures and ineffective practices. The status quo is simply unacceptable. Even though the mathematics education community has made progress toward improving mathematics teaching and learning (National Center for Education Statistics [NCES] 2015), this work remains far from complete. Documents that have informed change include (but are not limited to): An Agenda for Action (NCTM 1980), Curriculum and Evaluation Standards for School Mathematics (NCTM 1989), Everybody Counts (National Research Council [NRC] 1989), Principles and Standards for School Mathematics (NCTM 2000), Adding It Up: Helping Children Learn Mathematics (NRC 2001), Curriculum Focal Points for Prekindergarten through Grade 8 Mathematics (NCTM 2006), Common Core State Standards for Mathematics (NGA Center and CCSSO 2010), and Principles to Actions: Ensuring Mathematical Success for All (NCTM 2014).

The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) provides the United States a picture of students’ mathematics achievement. This assessment, which is administered every two years to a representative sample of students in each state at grades 4, 8, and 12, provides a collective snapshot of the progress made toward increasing students’ mathematics achievement. For the NAEP assessment, achievement is defined as what students know and are able to do. Scoring at the proficient level indicates “… solid academic performance and competency over challenging subject matter” (NCES 2018, n.p.). The results provide one measure of a student’s cumulative learning of mathematics through grade 8. While eighth-grade mathematics achievement test scores have improved significantly since 1990, scores have been generally flat during the past three administrations of the test, with 66 percent of eighth-grade students scoring below the proficient level in the 2019 administration of the test (The Nation’s Report Card 2019). While overall progress has been made during the last three decades, it has not been sufficient.

A review of the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), which is an international study designed in part to measure trends across countries in students’ mathematics achievement in grade 8, provides a snapshot of progress in mathematics for both the United States and Canada. In the 2015 administration for both countries, less than 50 percent of students scored at the level categorized as being able to apply understanding and knowledge of mathematics in a “… variety of relatively complex situations” or beyond (Provasnik et al. 2016). This finding points to the need for middle schools in both the United States and Canada to place greater focus on the learning of mathematics that go far beyond procedural approaches.

Identified Challenges

Catalyzing Change in Middle School Mathematics identifies existing challenges in middle school mathematics and indicates direction for improvement. All stakeholders involved in the teaching of mathematics to middle school students should critically examine the following:

  • The purposes of middle school mathematics, to explicitly broaden the stated purposes for teaching and learning mathematics in middle school
  • The structures in schools, in order to eliminate structures that impede development of student mathematical identity, agency, and mathematical growth, and to strengthen those that encourage positive identity, strong sense of agency, and mathematical development
  • Instructional practices, to support, enhance, and adopt instructional practices that are equitable and based on providing high-quality learning opportunities to motivate and engage students in learning mathematics
  • The mathematical ideas developed, including mathematical practices, processes, and content, to support students as they continue their study of mathematics and navigate their lives

By critically examining these challenges and taking action, the mathematics education community will be in a position to ensure that each and every middle school student develops into a mathematically literate and engaged member of a democratic society. This means students will have the ability to make sense of, reason, and base decisions on mathematical information in our rapidly changing world. Such examination calls attention to the idea that mathematical learning experiences can and should be engaging and spark curiosity and wonder that lead to rich investigations of interesting phenomena.

Importantly, mathematical learning experiences that engage students in rich investigations reinstate mathematics to its rightful position as a magnet to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), as described in the report Charting a Course for Success: America’s Strategy for STEM Education (National Science and Technology Council [NSTC] 2018). This landmark report states that students should be engaged where the disciplines converge and that in today’s world, an effective education “… rests on learners’ ability to apply logic and mathematical principles to societal questions” (NSTC 2018, p. 15). The report further identifies mathematics as foundational to success across all STEM fields as mathematics is the language used to make sense of phenomena. While mathematics has historically been considered a gatekeeper to students’ access to STEM careers, Catalyzing Change in Middle School Mathematics challenges middle school mathematics stakeholders to make mathematics a magnet into students’ access to STEM careers and to ensure each and every student, regardless of career aspirations, develops the strong mathematical and STEM literacy they need for everyday life. STEM literacy, which includes mathematical literacy, can be defined as the “… conceptual understandings and procedural skills and abilities for individuals to address STEM-related personal, social, and global issues” (Bybee 2010, p. 31). This prioritization on the “M” in STEM aligns to the Building STEM Education on a Strong Mathematical Foundation position statement from the National Council of Supervisors of Mathematics (NCSM) and the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. This joint position statement describes mathematics “… as the center of any STEM education program …” and that “… students need a strong mathematics foundation to succeed in STEM fields and to make sense of STEM-related topics in their daily lives” (NCSM and NCTM 2018, p. 1).

Initiating Critical Conversations

Extensive, collective action from a wide range of stakeholders will be necessary to address the barriers that restrict access to a high-quality mathematics program. Programs that lead to students receiving qualitatively different mathematical learning experiences and that do not practice equitable access to high-quality mathematics programs ill serve students and the foundation for their future. Nasir, Hand, and Taylor (2008) pose the possibility that “Mathematics holds a privileged status in our society as an elite activity for the smartest of citizens” (p. 226). Widespread and impactful changes to system structures of middle schools are needed to more systematically and consistently implement high-quality mathematics instruction.

Many stakeholders have a role in shaping the system of middle school mathematics, including state and provincial education policymakers and leaders; regional support centers, school boards, building and district administrators; those making decisions about assessments; elementary, middle, and high school teachers; school counselors, curriculum developers and instructional leaders; universities and mathematics teacher educators; families and communities; student caregivers, paraprofessionals, and substitute teachers; school volunteers; and students. Examining challenges and determining what actions to take will require thoughtful and authentic partnerships, such as those between a school and its families and communities. Additionally, a critical partner in education is the employment sector, including business and industry, which awaits our graduates. Community employers are well positioned to help assure that what is taught in class has meaning, context, and relevance outside of class. Thus, thoughtful consideration should be given to how to invite the many stakeholders in middle school mathematics education into catalyzing change conversations.

It is through critical conversations, identifying priorities, making plans, and taking action that real, long-term, sustained improvement in middle school mathematics can occur. This shift will require all stakeholders who are involved in teaching mathematics to middle school students to be dedicated, intentional, and persistent in creating change; it will not happen by chance. Real change will require strong collaboration, transparent communication, tough conversations, hard work, and perseverance among stakeholders and communities. It is our collective responsibility to provide middle school students with the highest quality mathematics program, and this work is worth the effort. Critical conversations are essential to begin the transformation of middle school mathematics into an equitable, just, and inclusive system for each and every student.

Key Recommendations

Catalyzing Change in Middle School Mathematics has proposed four key recommendations that must be enacted to create the highest quality middle school mathematics program for each and every student that recognizes and celebrates young adolescents. These recommendations are discussed in detail in the following chapters and are as follows:

  1. Broaden the Purposes of Learning Mathematics. Each and every student should develop deep mathematical understanding, understand and critique the world through mathematics, and experience the wonder, joy, and beauty of mathematics, which all contribute to a positive mathematical identity.
  2. Create Equitable Structures in Mathematics. Middle school mathematics should dismantle inequitable structures, including tracking teachers and the practice of ability grouping and tracking students into qualitatively different courses.
  3. Implement Equitable Mathematics Instruction. Mathematics instruction should be consistent with research-informed and equitable teaching practices that foster students’ positive mathematical identities and strong sense of agency.
  4. Develop Deep Mathematical Understanding. Middle schools should offer a common shared pathway grounded in the use of mathematical practices and processes to coherently develop deep mathematical understanding, ensuring the highest quality mathematics education for each and every student.

Chapter 2 presents multiple purposes of learning mathematics in middle school. Chapter 3 calls attention to inequitable structures at the school, district, and overall system levels. Chapter 4 describes the research-informed and equitable instructional practices that should guide middle school mathematics programs. Chapter 5 examines the mathematical practices, processes, and content of middle school focused on developing deep mathematical understanding. In each chapter, research findings are summarized and examples are provided. Conversation starters are included to initiate collegial and critical conversations about current, and sometimes deeply entrenched, traditions in mathematics education. In Chapter 6, next steps and specific actions for middle school mathematics stakeholders in bringing these recommendations to life are provided.

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