Social Justice: The pursuit of student achievement for ALL (Equity Leadership)

PRIMEd Principal
October 2014


Gutstein, E. & Peterson, B.  eds. Rethinking Mathematics – Teaching Mathematics for Social Justice. Milwaukee, Wis.: Rethinking Schools, 2013.


It’s TIME identifies social justice as one of three over-arching themes in pursuit of the goal to raise achievement in mathematics. It is a call for educators to go “beyond access and opportunity (equity) –  to fair outcomes, basic rights and security (p. 8)”. Additionally, it is a call for students to take action by first using mathematics to critically analyze social injustices and then define methods of advocating and taking action for change. Like equity, making sense of social justice in mathematic is a journey; it’s complex, frustrating, yet rewarding when results are evident. Wagner & Stinson (2012) differentiate teaching mathematics about social justice, teaching mathematics with social justice, and teaching mathematics for social justice (p. 6 ). I correlate this thinking to my journey in understanding and advocating for equity.

Allow me to briefly digress to almost twenty years ago when I had the honor of participating in the Equity in Mathematics Education Leadership Institute (EMELI) under the direction of Dr. Julian Weissglass from the University of California at Santa Barbara. I was part of a district team of teachers and leaders who met with other teams from throughout the United States. The experience was both intellectual and emotional.  Important terms, such as racism, discrimination, homophobia, and class, gender, and language bias, were defined and differentiated. Dr. Weissglass used constructivists listening techniques such as dyads, personal experience panels and support groups to ensure equal speaking time and emotional support when participants shared stories. There were many takeaways from my first year as a participant and second year as a support group leader, the greatest being the importance of having conversations with those from differing backgrounds and with differing perspectives. My district supported me in facilitating many equity workshops and hosting two Equity Summits where Dr. Weissglass was a featured speaker. In reflection, these were important steps to learn about equity.

Developing policies with equity in mind has been a movement in mathematics education over the past several decades. Newly developed curriculum and pedagogy have been for the purpose of ensuring excellence for every student. Many mission statements and school improvement goals include the word equity. And yet, too many children are still underachieving in school mathematics. I believe taking leadership for equity goes beyond a definition, mission statement, curriculum, pedagogy, or achievement results to critically examining every aspect of one’s life. This includes acknowledging the historical reasons why some groups have under achieved in mathematics and in society. For me, taking leadership for equity involves advocating for those groups in the written and spoken word; it has been a personal transformation. I share this story because the path to making sense of what it means to teach mathematics for social justice may a similar.

A wonderful tool to begin the process of the about, with, and for is Rethinking Mathematics: Teaching Mathematics for Social Justice (Gustein and Peterson, 2013). This resource has many activities reflecting all three ideas, for example, “Living Algebra, Living Wage”.  In this activity, middle school students in an urban school engaged in a mathematics task involving the occupation and wages of their parents compared to the wages of the CEO who owns the company. A description of each type of occupation (for example, store clerk, security guard) was provided along with its need and importance to the community. Care was taken to respect and value each job type. Linear graphs were developed to communicate and compare data. Students discussed such topics as what should be a fair wage and should a family be able to live on minimum wage? Some students were impacted to the point of wanting to take action, for example, working for better grades and thinking about their future. The instructional strategies and student actions demonstrate view of teaching with and for social justice. The goal of this teacher was for students to use mathematics as a tool to make sense of their lived experiences and take action. Some students will want to learn more mathematics when they see its power in understanding and solving problems they deem important and relevant.

Strategies for Implementation

Districts, schools and collaborative teams within a professional learning community culture can use this resource as first steps or to enrich current thinking about a social justice curriculum by completing a book study.  The challenge is to go beyond merely adding isolated tasks to a curriculum to building a community of leaders who will work to broaden thinking about mathematics and set goals that include student actions, for example, student letter writing campaigns, speaking with an authority figure, or gathering additional research. Students should see their teachers as advocates against the injustices they and others face. The variety of classroom vignettes and curricular suggestions provide ideas for every grade band and school demographic, including honors, urban, rural, suburban and alternative. All students should be aware of social injustices; some students live it, while others learn about it with compassion. This is a great tool for coaches, department chairs, and resource teachers. Mathematics leaders will find this tool useful when developing presentations about It’s TIME.


Wagner, A. & Stinson, David. Eds. Teaching Mathematics for Social Justice – Conversations with Educators. Reston: NCTM, 2012.

Guest Blogger

Linda Fulmore is a mathematics education consultant, NCSM Position Papers Editor, former NCSM 1st and 2nd Vice-President, and a trustee on NCTM’s Mathematics Education Trust (MET) Board. She is a former high school mathematics teacher and former High School Assistant Principal in Phoenix, Arizona.

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