• Jonathan Osler

Yes, social justice can be a tool to teach California students math.

by Jonathan Osler


A similar version of this essay originally ran in the San Francisco Chronicle



At this moment, in math classrooms across California, students are asking themselves the same questions many of us asked ourselves when we were their age: Why do I need to learn this? How will this ever matter in my life?

The perceived irrelevance of math helps explain why an ACT study found that only 1 in 10 high school graduates indicate an interest in a Science, Technology, Engineering or Math (STEM) major or occupation. Compounding this issue are distressing disparities in math performance: Black and Latinx students were only half as likely as their White and Asian peers to meet or exceed grade-level math standards on California’s CAASPP tests. If we want California students to excel at math, one critical place to start is by making it relevant to them.

The draft Mathematics Framework currently being considered by the California Department of Education, if adopted, would help us get there. This framework describes the curriculum and instruction necessary to help students achieve proficiency with the Common Core State Standards in Mathematics. Last updated in 2013, this document also provides guidance to districts on course pathways students can take to graduate high school in order to be eligible to attend a University of California school. With a new and explicit focus on equity and engagement, the proposed framework has the potential to transform math teaching and learning in our state and inspire a generation of students to study math and explore related career paths who otherwise would not.

Providing students with culturally relevant and antiracist curricula substantially increases high school attendance, graduation, and the probability of college enrollment, which is why earlier this month, Governor Newsom made California the first state in the nation to require a semester of Ethnic Studies to complete high school. Stanford psychologist Dr. Carissa Romero cites evidence that students’ perception of relevance in their schoolwork shapes their mindset in responses to challenges in school. For example, a 9th grade Ethnic Studies curriculum in SFUSD increased student attendance by 21% and GPA by 1.4 points. It’s not a stretch to think that enriching math classes similarly would only serve to further improve student outcomes.

According to a 2017 study by the nonprofit YouthTruth, only 48% of middle and high school students found what they were learning in school to be relevant. Research has shown that students who perceive math to be relevant perform better on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) exam. In 2019, Black eighth graders who indicated strong agreement with the statements “I enjoy doing math” and “it is important to do well in math” scored as much as 54% higher on the NAEP than peers who felt the opposite. Making math more relevant to the lived experiences of California students, especially students of color, provides a powerful opportunity to engage and educate children who have too often been left behind.

There are, unfortunately, innumerable inequities impacting our students that can be turned into relevant math lessons. Women earn only 82% of men’s wages for the same work. COVID mortality rates are at least twice as high for Black, Latinx, and indigenous communities than white ones. There have been 9,081 reported hate crimes against people from Asian/Asian Pacific Islander communities since 2020, a steep increase from years past. In San Francisco, 37% of homeless people identify as Black while only 6% of city residents do; not coincidentally, 75% of Black people in SF County live in neighborhoods that are or are at risk of gentrifying, the highest rates for any racial group. From Algebra to Z-Scores and all the concepts in between, math can be harnessed to explore and address issues like these that negatively impact students and their communities.


Source: Bay Area Equity Atlas

While it has become increasingly common for teachers and students to explore issues of social and racial injustice through their curriculum, most math classrooms remain painfully traditional in their content and pedagogy to the detriment of students. Failure to complete a third year of high school math (commonly Algebra II) with a C or better is one of the factors that has resulted in fewer than half of California’s students graduating high school eligible to attend college at a University of California school. In Oakland, the eligibility rate is only 41% for African American students. In San Francisco only 47% of African American and 40% of English Learners graduates were considered prepared for college.

Adopting the proposed Mathematics Framework won’t diminish rigor in our classrooms as the conservative Independent Institute has claimed. Instead it will inspire students to engage in rigorous learning because the context will be more relevant. Teachers, empowered by this new framework will be able to help students build mathematical understanding through the exploration of social justice topics, and apply their mathematical knowledge to address our most pressing challenges.

Civil rights leader and math educator Bob Moses, who passed away recently, wrote that math literacy is not about simply transferring a body of knowledge to children, but about using that knowledge as a tool to a much larger end. The proposed Mathematics Framework, and the concept of social justice math are two of these tools. In a region that is so rife with injustice, our children deserve for us to harness all of the tools at our disposal.