George Lucas Educational Foundation
Photo illustration of Jose Vilson
Israel Vargas for Edutopia

José Vilson: Good Math Education Is a ‘Civil Right’

The middle school math teacher, author, and lecturer on holding high expectations for every child and prioritizing mathematics in the same way we do literacy.

May 10, 2024

Nearly two decades ago, when José Vilson was studying to become a teacher, an alarming rise in high school dropout rates was worrying educators and monopolizing news headlines nationwide. 

Eager to make an impact, Vilson set his sights on the middle grades: “I thought that if I wanted to make a difference when it came to altering these rates, it would happen in middle school, because that’s where you develop the foundational skills to build up your algebraic and geometric thinking.”

If he could successfully teach middle school students math—as well as the skills and mindsets to persevere through challenging work—young adolescents would enter high school better prepared for complex math as well as the ups and downs of college and careers, he reasoned. 

After teaching math to middle school students in New York City for 15 years, Vilson hasn’t wavered from his early-career commitment. In fact, today he’s unequivocal in arguing that aiming for mere proficiency in math is inexcusable. Rather, math is an essential “civil right” that’s as important to master as reading and writing.

Vilson is the author of This Is Not a Test: A New Narrative on Race, Class, and Education, and his writing has been published by The Atlantic, The New York Times, and CNN. A popular speaker, he’s presented at TED, the American Research Association, and the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. He is cofounder and executive director of EduColor, an organization aimed at increasing the number of educators of color in classrooms. Currently, Vilson is completing his doctorate at Columbia University, researching barriers facing teachers of color in schools. 

I spoke with Vilson about the secret sauce for connecting kids to abstract math, the importance of back-pocket questions as a metacognitive tool, and math as a “lever for change.” 

BORYGA: In a 2017 talk, you discuss the importance of having high expectations for your middle school math students. What do you mean by high expectations?   

VILSON: For me, high expectations aren’t about using math to challenge kids in a way that punishes them or weeds them out from the field. I fundamentally believe that if I was able to master this complex math, then you can too. It’s that simple. 

I tell my students, “I don’t want to hear about you not being a math person. Math is already within you. You’re doing math all the time, voluntarily and involuntarily.” The other thing I say is that even if you think you won’t use math in your everyday life, you still have the capacity within you to do it. 

It’s interesting: The times when students believe the math they’re learning isn’t relevant is when they can’t connect with it. When I can find ways to help them connect to the math, those questions never come up. That speaks to the importance of building deep and sustainable connections with the material.

BORYGA: What do you mean when you say that, for students of color in particular, math is a civil right? 

VILSON: Educator Bob Moses was instrumental in helping me think about how math and numeracy ought to be a civil right in the same way that we think about literacy. In his book Radical Equations: Civil Rights From Mississippi to the Algebra Project, which he cowrote with Charles E. Cobb Jr., he talks about how when someone is illiterate, generally people say, “Oh, that’s a crime. We need to fix that.” When it comes to math, that usually isn’t the case. 

And yet, in the media, in policies, or in our personal fiscal matters, numbers matter a ton. But when students don‘t know how to interpret the numbers in front of them, people say, “Well, they could just use a calculator.” They make it seem like it’s not that bad. Or they think, “I wasn’t good at math; it’s OK if my child isn’t good at math.” 

My feeling is that math is not reserved for a specific set of people who may acclimate to narrow expectations of how to do math. It is for everybody. When I say it’s a civil right, I mean that we all deserve to learn the best math possible. We should be saying, “Wait, you’re innumerate? We need to fix that immediately.” Everything we do for reading, we should do for math.

BORYGA: Why is math so important—why should we take an all-hands-on-deck approach to teaching it? 

VILSON: When you join numeracy with literacy, you can better understand other subjects, like social studies or science. To understand what is happening with climate change, for example, you need to understand exponential functions and how they work. 

Many of us don’t know the basic tenets of math that can provide us access to the things that are affecting us right here and now in a profound way. Basic algebra, geometry, statistics—these are foundational texts for how the world works. Giving students the ability, and the right, to access those texts is important.

When I say it's a civil right, I mean that we all deserve to learn the best math possible.

José Vilson

BORYGA: Your new book, due for publication in 2025, explores how to translate “abstract and intangible math concepts” into concrete understanding for students. What types of strategies do you recommend for teachers in classrooms?

VILSON: The idea is to push students to take a step back, tap into what they already know, and use that understanding to help them scale up to more complex concepts that they may not have previously felt they could access. 

For example, too often people think the equal sign signifies an answer. But to effectively teach kids algebra, we must explain that an equal sign is also about balance. One of my favorite lessons is to have students imagine we’re going to balance two items on a scale. Because I’m in New York, I’ll choose items they’re familiar with, like bagels and paper bags. I’ll draw a set of bags on one side of the scale and bagels on the other side and show them that to achieve balance, I can put any number of bags and bagels on each side of the scale or a mix of each on either side. 

This understanding allows us to get into algebraic equations and the idea that when students see the equal sign in Algebra I, their first thought shouldn’t be The other side has to be equal to a constant number. No, it could actually be equal to something that is also a variable. And this inevitably leads to understanding polynomials and all sorts of functions. 

BORYGA: For many kids, math anxiety can limit their willingness to take risks and make mistakes. How do you work with that reality in your classroom? 

VILSON: By the time students got to me, they may have already had at least six years of not feeling confident about math. You can imagine the level of anxiety they have. 

Something I do is lean into what I call a questioner stance. It’s me saying, “Let me offer questions to you that you can keep in your back pocket whenever you don’t feel confident.” This posture helps when you’re one teacher with 30 or 35 students, but it also improves students’ confidence in their ability to learn on their own. 

When students get stuck on a problem, I ask them a series of questions to try and figure out where they’re having trouble. Then I try to scaffold things for them. But at the precipice, when they’re just about to get it, I say, “OK, you got it from here. I’m not going to tell you yes or no.” Then I walk away.

At first it’s frustrating for students because they want validation. But I delay that gratification enough for them to feel confident in themselves when they’re able to figure out the solution. And hopefully, the next time they get stuck, they hear my voice in their head guiding them and ask themselves similar questions. I’ve found that this usually helps quell some of their math anxiety. 

BORYGA: You’ve said, pretty famously on Twitter, “Most of my work as a math teacher isn’t even math. It’s helping students believe that they can also do math.” Why is belief so important in math class? 

VILSON: For me, making students believe they can do math means making it clear there will be errors along the way and that the idea is not that we’ll never make errors, but that we will try our best to make fewer errors. 

Trial and error allow us to get better. Failing is a part of winning. When we believe in our students, we allow them to believe in themselves and their efficacy and understand that things get better over time. Instead of thinking, “I made that mistake again—I’m not good at math,” what you want students to say to themselves is, “I’m going to keep trying, I’m going to keep making errors, but these errors look better and better, and that means I’m getting closer to what we’re trying to accomplish here.”  

Basic algebra, geometry, statistics—these are foundational texts for how the world works.

José Vilson

BORYGA: You prioritize developing what you call “soft skills” in students. What do you say to critics who argue that this takes away valuable time from the essential work of, for example,  learning math facts? 

VILSON: I would say there is nothing soft about trying to build community. It’s actually hard to figure out what’s going on with a particular student that isn’t allowing them to connect to a problem in front of them. It’s a lot easier to just tell them how to do it. But if you do that, the student has no real connection to the procedures. They just follow it, and then they throw it away once they’re done, as opposed to being able to carry a set of skills with them, like being able to model, scale, or reason. That is what the soft skills are all about.  

BORYGA: Let’s talk about your current work and research. What are some of the main barriers to hiring—and retaining—diverse teachers today?

VILSON: The pay issue is huge, but it’s important to dig into that. While White teachers are more likely to have the fiscal base to go into teaching, which can pay substandard wages at first, and wait for salaries to build up over years, teachers of color—and particularly those who come from impoverished contexts—don’t often have that luxury. Fixing that could include forms of debt forgiveness, stipends, or other ways to augment pay. 

Another issue is the profound lack of mobility teachers of color can experience. I’ve heard from teachers that they often don’t get the same flexibility as White colleagues when it comes to having autonomy in pedagogy, curriculum, or assessments. And in frameworks supposedly designed to be objective, they may receive lower ratings than their White counterparts, even when they’re using the same pedagogy. 

I think, too often, these experiences compound and keep teachers further and further away from the work they actually want to do. 

BORYGA: You’ve been vocal about the need to hire more teachers of color. Why is this so important in schools and in the lives of students?

VILSON: We ought to put adults in our schools who reflect what we mean by public education. More than 50 percent of our student body in public schools are students of color—and they have urgent needs that aren’t being met by our education system. 

There’s a burgeoning body of research that suggests teachers of color can be a good answer to this. It’s not a Band-Aid solution, but when you hire people who have a set of experiences that can inform the system about how to do better, then, notably, everybody benefits, including White students. 

We need teachers who can create connective tissue among students so they can see what it means to live in a democracy that includes representations of everybody. That’s what I believe a public education can do very well.

This interview has been edited for brevity, clarity, and flow.

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  • STEM
  • Diversity
  • Education Equity
  • Student Engagement
  • Math
  • 6-8 Middle School
  • 9-12 High School

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