MSRI Workshop on Equity in Math Education

This is to briefly summarize from my point of view what went on at the MSRI workshop on equity in math education last week. (Vicki was also there and may wish to give her side of the story so you get a more complete picture. It was a very broad workshop, 13 hours a day for 3 days. The web site is down right now, but you can view a cached version here.)
The charge of the workshop was to brainstorm solutions to the underrepresentation of (racial and ethnic) minorities in mathematics and mathematics courses which frequently serve as gatekeepers to other areas.
The participants were thus rather heterogeneous, policy-makers, mathematics educators, mathematicians and teachers, including several groups of young people from various projects who serve as mentors and tutors in mathematics.
The talks and presentations were thus rather mixed, from talks by a law professor about constitutional issues on education to examples of math games played by young tutors and an actual 9th grade math class right with 22 students from a nearby high school right in front of all participants.
There were also some chilling descriptions of the abominable conditions at some schools serving mostly black and native American students.
The usual disagreements between research mathematicians and math educators were not brought to the surface much, but were brought up in many personal conversations during breaks and meals. However, there was general agreement that the underrepresentation of minorities is a serious national problem, and that more resources and better teachers are crucial to its solution.
However, no firm solutions or consensus emerged.
The two things I took away from the workshop are:

  1. the need for more math content by math teachers, mainly at the elementary and middle school teachers, and
  2. a small but important comment by a representative from the American Indian Science and Engineering Society: Asked about cultural sensitivity in math classes for her students, she answered that even though there are some issues around this, but in the end, her students need to learn “main-stream” mathematics in order to succeed, not take watered down courses; and the earlier this starts, the more beneficial it will be to her students.