Our school has an Advisory class twice a week. Part of being a student’s advisor is that you complete a home visit early in the year to see what the home life is like and to establish a connection with the student’s parents/guardians. Having recently completed home visits for my advisees, I was reminded of and stunned by the clear relationship between a student’s family life and their success in school. There are so many factors outside of a student’s intelligence that contribute to their opportunities (or hindrances) for success in school. Sadly, I think many of our students fail to recognize these external factors and, as a result, attribute any lack of success to their own intelligence and self-worth. I wanted to do something in my class to expose my students to this issue and to have them make connections to its importance for equity in our society.
I teach 11th Grade Math and, even though the issue I decided to pursue was raised through my interactions with advisees and their parents, I decided that my content class would be the best place to tackle the issue. I should note that this lesson was not used as a way to “teach” or introduce a concept but, rather, as a way to show students the power and relevancy of what we have been studying. We have been studying scatterplots, regression, and correlation analysis. The beauty of this mathematical tool is that it allows you to look at the strength of a relationship between two variables (not necessarily a causal relationship). I decided to plan a lesson that allowed my students to look at the relationship between socio-economic status and success in school.
At first, I was concerned that the lesson I had in mind had the potential to reinforce certain stereotypes that may exist in the minds of some students. My concern was that students might quickly respond to the correlation between socio-economic status and success in school with, “those students just aren’t trying hard enough.” In an attempt to be proactive about this, I added a journal prompt at the start of the lesson that addressed this misconception. I asked students to answer the prompt, “do you think anybody WANTS to fail in school? What would cause somebody to fail or become unmotivated?” Before we even started the lesson, we had established that everybody wants to succeed and that there are a variety of factors that can cause a student to lose confidence and motivation.
Next, I presented students with a Google Spreadsheet containing the names of various schools in San Diego County. Each student was responsible for finding the zip code of two schools, the average household income of that zip code, and the API score for that school. Then, we exported the data and completed a correlation study to look at the relationship. The resulting scatterplot and line of best fit is below:
The r-squared coefficient of 0.54 indicates a moderately strong relationship between “average household income” and “API score.” Although we did discuss the mathematics and the limitations of the metrics with which we measured “income” and “success,” the more meaningful discussion was in relation to the social implications. Some of the questions I asked students were:
1. WHY do you think this relationship exists?
2. What does a school need to provide in order for students to be successful? How does income affect that?
3. Does a student born into a family with avg. income $40,000 have the same opportunity as a student born into a family with avg. income $100,000?
4. What are the implications of this for our society as a whole? Is this equitable/fair?
We discussed why this trend existed, how the mathematics helped us explain/understand the trend, and whether or not ‘we’ (government, individuals, schools, etc.) should be doing anything to help counterbalance the inequity that was clearly present.
At the end of our discussion, I asked students to respond, in writing, to a journal prompt that read, “Why do you think the relationship between income and success in school exists? How has this activity changed your perspective on equity in our society (if at all)?” Here is a selection of student responses:
“This has changed my perspective because, even though I know that sometimes low income areas have lower test scores, it makes sense that its not just because of a lack of motivation, but because of a lack of opportunity.”
“I really didn’t notice how the trend worked until I saw it on a graph.”
“We don’t live in a land of equal opportunity.”
“I feel this relationship exists because families with a greater income will move to areas where schools are performing better.”
“I see evidence for it. So, yeah, there is a relationship and I think its unhealthy and we need to break it up.”
Ultimately, I felt that this lesson was not only a success, but more important, of some value for the students beyond the classroom. Although it may not have changed anybody’s life, it definitely opened (or, for some students, continued) an important discussion about success in school and the unseen forces that perpetuate racial/economic inequity in society. In reflecting on completing this assignment, I realized:
We should use our content as a medium for rich discussion
I easily could have accomplished my content goals for this lesson by just doing a correlation study on ‘height and shoe size’ or something equally as trivial. Instead, students were exposed to the content in a much more meaningful way. This assignment was a reminder to use math as a way to have meaningful discussion and address important issues in our school community and greater society. We need to remember that math class should be about much more than a transfer of sterile facts and formulas from teacher (or computer) to student. It should be about thinking, understanding, and connecting.
I was hesitant to bring such a ‘loaded’ topic to the classroom because I was afraid of the maturity with which students would handle it. As always, they proved themselves to be more than capable of having a respectful, open-minded discussion. We shouldn’t shy away from important (and sometimes difficult) conversations with kids. For some, school may be the only place they get it.
I enjoy talking about equity issues with colleagues, but it felt better to DO something about it. We are so fortunate to have a profession that allows us to expose young adults to important topics and encourage them to take action towards improving our society. We should use every opportunity to do just that.
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