Mathematics is the language of the 21st century. One of the best ways for Cambridge to challenge economic, civic and political inequality would be to create an urgent plan for math education, one goal of which would be for at least 75 percent of this year’s kindergarten class to score at or above grade level in math by the time they finish the third grade – without any income gap. This past spring, only 57 percent of third graders in Cambridge Public Schools scored at or above grade level on the state math exam, and there was a 27 percentage point gap between low-income and not low-income students. Ten years ago the statistics were roughly the same. Clearly we need to do something different.

Though an urgent, comprehensive plan for math should be designed by a task force of educators, administrators, School Committee members, parents, high school students and community experts, some of the components would certainly include:

bullet-gray-small Fast-tracking universal 3- and 4-year-old education in Cambridge. No discussion needed, we all know the research.

bullet-gray-small Reducing class sizes and student-educator ratios. Though educational research is never definitive, class size research makes a compelling case that having smaller class sizes and lower student-educator ratios increases achievement, particularly for lower-income students. Small class size is a major feature of private schools; reducing class size is also a strategy used by Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland, which have decreased achievement gaps substantially over the past two decades. Cambridge has an average class size on par with Somerville, Medford, Salem and Pittsfield, all cities with far fewer resources. That doesn’t make sense.

bullet-gray-small Integrating quantitative skills across the curriculum and across the learning day. Math skills should not only be learned in math class, and are not just required for the job market. Math skills are civic and political skills. All Cambridge educators, whether they teach math or other subjects, whether they teach during the school day or in an after-school program, need to help ensure that all our students become math literate. It’s everyone’s responsibility, including the School Committee’s.

bullet-gray-small Creating a radically engaging and rigorous pre-K through 12th grade curriculum designed to prepare all students for calculus and statistics in high school. Advanced high school math courses open doors to opportunity, and we should want those options for every student. High-level math skills are valued in the job market, and understanding statistics is increasingly necessary for understanding our political and civic world. But keeping students engaged in math learning from pre-K through high school requires a curriculum that combines direct instruction in formal mathematics with real world applications of increasing complexity that are matched to students’ interests. As many of our educators know, when math is taught properly, it is rigorous, fascinating and fun.

bullet-gray-small Joining the We the People National Math Literacy for All Alliance. Math learning is seen as a civil rights issue by the more than 50 organizations, individuals, university departments, student groups and public school districts in this alliance. Key members are the Algebra Project and the Young People’s Project, both based here in Cambridge. Cambridge should join the Alliance formally to benefit from its national work on rigorous, innovative and engaging approaches to math education.

These are just five ideas that could be part of an urgent plan for raising mathematics achievement in Cambridge, particularly for students we are leaving behind – joining something the math department is already doing: Professional development for teachers with training in mathematics, math pedagogy and anti-racism and anti-sexism. Cambridge schools are not immune to racist and sexist societal messages about who can and cannot do math. With white women constituting the majority of our elementary teachers, our teachers need to examine the messages they received growing up about their own mathematical abilities and the messages they receive about the math abilities of black and brown children, and the district’s new strategic plan for math has started this work.

The only strategy that has any hope of succeeding is to approach math education in Cambridge with an insistent and unrelenting focus on high achievement for all, adequate resources, research-based practices, maximum student engagement and the civil right that every student has to be provided with a genuinely 21st century education.


Emily Dexter is a second-term member of the School Committee and a candidate for reelection. She is an active member of the We the People National Math Literacy for All Alliance.