T.E.A. with College Futures featuring Pamela Burdman

Welcome to T.E.A. with College Futures, a monthly feature dedicated to Talking Equity in Action with grantees, partners, and College Futures Foundation staff. Each month, we’ll highlight efforts addressing inequities in and around higher education and related to socio-economic mobility, and seek learnings and inspirations directly from changemakers.

Just Equations

Just Equations and The Campaign for College Opportunity recently partnered to release Greater Equity in Higher Education Through Math Opportunity. This publication examines how math requirements, such as calculus, can serve as gatekeepers of college access and preparation, disproportionately impacting students who have been historically underserved students. Pamela Burdman, Just Equations’ executive director and co-author of the brief, provides more insight into how math is a critical component of the higher education equity conversations; she offers her thoughts on where California’s public postsecondary systems currently stand in their math equity quests and where there is room to grow. 

Q. In your newly-released brief, you write, “If education is the great equalizer in this country, then mathematics might be the great divider.” Tell us more about the thinking there. 

A. I’d like to credit my co-author Melodie Baker for writing that compelling sentence, which really crystallizes the reason Just Equations exists. We, as a community of education advocates and supporters, are focused on education equity, and too often math education has been set up as a gatekeeper that blocks people from achieving their educational goals rather than supporting people to reach them. Whether or not the gatekeeping is intended, it’s still too often the result. Here’s an example: Mathematics is the only Advanced Placement (AP)  area in high school that requires students to actually take five classes instead of four. That means if a student doesn’t start the sequence in middle school, they’re off track for taking calculus and if they don’t take calculus, this could reduce their ability to get into a STEM field and even to get admitted to a selective college. Mathematics is used to rank and sort students in a manner that is completely separate from its purpose. To quote the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, the purpose of mathematics education is to “1) expand professional opportunity, 2) understand and critique the world, and 3) experience wonder, joy, and beauty.” Too many students in their educational experiences with math receive none of those benefits, not even one. We want them to have all three.


Q. A particular header in the brief stands out to us: Math Equity is the Key to Higher Education Equity. What does that mean to you?

A. What we meant by that header is that we really can’t achieve higher education equity if we don’t attend to math. If we look at math outcomes, whether in high school or in college, very frequently they track with race and income as opposed to student ability. If we look at math opportunity by school, very often access to higher level math courses is more available to higher-income students and white and Asian students, just based on the high schools that students attend. There are also racial disparities within high schools. Even Black and Latinx students who start out as high achievers in mathematics tend not to receive the same opportunities as high-achieving white and Asian students. Calculus, when it comes to more selective universities, is very often used as a signal – a shortcut really – to suggest that this student has met the bar and is considered “college material”, even though it’s rarely an outright requirement. That means that this lack of access on its face can prevent students from having the higher education opportunity that they may merit based on their efforts and achievements.

Here’s another problem: Some research has shown that culturally, we have these almost-subconscious beliefs that some people are math people and some people are not. So when these beliefs are not fully conscious, we may not realize the assumptions we’re implicitly making about who can do math and who cannot do math. They become part of the culture and they’re absorbed by students as young as 6-years-old and it can actually start to affect their math achievement both in terms of their own confidence as well as the assumptions of their teachers and counselors.


Q. Do you believe California’s higher education institutions acknowledge math’s role in advancing equity on their campuses?

A. I think California institutions probably are ahead of many other states in acknowledging this issue but there’s definitely room to grow. The University of California system was the first system to put out a statement back in 2016 saying that calculus is a good course and can be beneficial to students, but it’s not a requirement that every student take calculus in order to go to the University of California and students should consider what math options are appropriate for their particular needs and interests. I say there is room to grow because any time I talk with high school math teachers and high school counselors they do not believe that is true. The counselors and high school teachers tend to believe that UC really does give a preference to students who have calculus on their transcripts. I would love to see a study that goes into all this data that could tell us more definitively.

The California State University system has also put a lot of thought into math preparation and how to help students become mathematically ready, like the Early Assessment Program and Early Start Program. They also decided against their proposed 4th-year math requirement. After considerable discussion, they decided instead to focus on supporting high schools in increasing the quality and variety of their fourth-year math courses. This speaks, overall, to the notion that California public universities are taking this issue of math preparation and math equity seriously. 

When it comes to math equity generally, the California community colleges have also been ahead of many other systems around the country in their rethinking around placement testing and remedial coursework, and leading with the idea that students can succeed in a college-level math course if properly supported. Their work in these areas has really been a model for others.


Q. In the brief, you offer several policy recommendations, including a set for state policymakers to consider. Where would you like to see California’s policymakers focus their time and attention?

A. I want to note first that it is important at the K-12 level that there are successful efforts to ensure students have equitable access to advanced coursework, but when it comes to higher education institutions and policymakers, we would love to see the systems actually do some research around admissions and success at the universities in different majors. I think it’s really important that given the inequities in access to advanced courses that these systems have policies in place to ensure they’re evaluating math course-taking in context. And the research will help support that. We also think the systems need to be cautious about how they give bonus points for courses. The concern is this: We know from other research that the majority of students who take AP Calculus repeat the course in college—that is they take Calculus I—so there are questions about the efficacy of the high school AP Calculus courses and whether it makes sense to give bonus points for courses that have to be repeated. Given that we know some students stack up AP courses, sometimes taking two or three AP math courses to boost their chances of getting into college, while other students lack such opportunities, we really think colleges need to review their practices to ensure they are effective and equitable.