Education Equity

A Focus on Equity in Math Instruction

Math teachers can use short activities based on student goals related to equity in order to make classes feel more inclusive and accessible.

July 19, 2023
michaeljung / Shutterstock

Many researchers have found that improving equity, which we define as equal access and opportunities for all students, also improves student outcomes. As math teachers, we face several challenges to make our instruction more equitable. Many students feel anxious about math; additionally, math curricula usually focus on teaching abstract skills that don’t connect to students’ lives.

To learn more about teaching equity, we joined our school’s equity team. In our meetings, educators from different departments analyzed factors that disproportionately affect historically marginalized groups and devised ways to make our school more inclusive. Maria Akinyele, PhD, a leadership development expert, helped us organize the overall framework of our discussions.

Unfortunately, most of the equity and social justice math lessons we found had large projects that wouldn’t fit into our required curricula. We looked for ways to embed equity into our teaching with smaller, more frequent activities.

Four components

Our solution was to devise what we call equity tasks, which are short activities that incorporate four student goals related to equity: 

  • Rigor: Students use clear and precise mathematical language while engaging in challenging mathematical content that extends their understanding.
  • Identity: Students believe they can excel in mathematics by supporting each other while refining mathematical ideas and explaining how mathematics relates to their lives.
  • Diversity: Students analyze different approaches and cultural contributions to mathematics.
  • Justice: Students use mathematics to recommend actions that make their communities fairer.

Unlike large projects, equity tasks can be as simple as homework or a warm-up assignment. Since they’re smaller activities, they can focus on only one or two components of equity. As we developed equity tasks, we also created a rubric to help us evaluate the amount of equity in each task and plan our units more effectively.

equity Tasks

Here are four examples of equity tasks and the lessons that could include them.

1. Aim: How do we use the order of operations to evaluate numerical expressions?

Warm-up: A few years ago, a controversial meme with the mathematical problem 8 ÷ 2(2 + 2) went viral. Students use calculators to help them determine the answer.

Homework: Students create or find a similar mathematical meme, explain how to get the answer, and briefly explain common incorrect answers and methods.

Task rating: 

  • Rigor: 2 (Students use precise language when discussing order of operations.)
  • Diversity: 0
  • Identity: 1 (Students justify their thinking to each other, but the task isn’t immediately relevant to their lives.)
  • Justice: 0

2. Aim: How do we solve quadratic equations? 

Activity: Students work in groups of four. Each solves a quadratic equation using a different method (factoring, completing the square, using the quadratic formula, and graphing). They determine which method works best for each equation and justify their conclusion.

Task rating: 

  • Rigor: 2
  • Diversity: 2 (Students analyze different approaches to solving a problem and research Persian mathematician al-Khwarizmi’s work in completing the square.)
  • Identity: 1
  • Justice: 0

3. Aim: How do we combine like terms?

Pre-lesson activity: Students submit a picture of something or someone that represents them. They write a short description explaining their choice.

Warm-up: Before the lesson, teachers print out the images, group them randomly, and put them into envelopes. Students work in groups and get one envelope per group. Each group takes the images out of their envelope and organizes them by what the group thinks is “alike.” This leads to a discussion of the mathematical concept of like terms.

Task rating: 

  • Rigor: 2
  • Diversity: 2 
  • Identity: 2 (Students share items that have personal meaning.)
  • Justice: 0

4. Aim: How do we use scales in maps to find distances?

Homework: Students identify local grocery stores and label them on a printed map of their neighborhood. Using an appropriate scale, they draw circles centered at each grocery store with a radius of 1 mile (for urban areas) or 10 miles (for rural areas). Locations outside these areas are considered food deserts, areas that are far from large grocery stores and have large numbers of low-income families who would have difficulty getting fresh food.

Task rating: 

  • Rigor: 2
  • Diversity: 2 
  • Identity: 2
  • Justice: 2 (This activity is part of a larger theme in which students learn about a problem in their community and propose concrete measures to address it.)

Other examples of equity tasks will appear online at Math Equity Tasks.

Limitations and benefits

Equity tasks have several limitations. They work best when they align with students’ interests and backgrounds, so we must take time to learn more about our students. Also, equity tasks are not isolated activities that can simply be sprinkled throughout the curriculum. They should be carefully planned out so that all four components of equity are adequately addressed over the year. Equity tasks require constant self-reflection so that teachers can develop practices that support their students.

Despite these limitations, equity tasks are powerful tools for keeping students more engaged. Creating smaller activities to do over the year is especially useful for teachers who are constrained by a mandated curriculum or teach to an end-of-year test. Most important, by strengthening our ability to weave rigor, diversity, identity, and justice into our math teaching, equity tasks make math more personal and meaningful for all students.

Share This Story

  • email icon

Filed Under

  • Education Equity
  • Inquiry-Based Learning
  • Teaching Strategies
  • Math
  • 9-12 High School

Follow Edutopia

  • facebook icon
  • twitter icon
  • instagram icon
  • youtube icon
  • Privacy Policy
  • Terms of Use
George Lucas Educational Foundation
Edutopia is an initiative of the George Lucas Educational Foundation.
Edutopia®, the EDU Logo™ and Lucas Education Research Logo® are trademarks or registered trademarks of the George Lucas Educational Foundation in the U.S. and other countries.