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A Racial Justice Approach to Teaching: Dismantling Racism in Mathematics Instruction

“We are more than test scores.” That was the refrain I heard from my social sciences colleagues in the teachers’ lounge protesting our school’s focus on standardized tests. The middle school was located in a poverty-impacted community with over 95% of students of color. In 2009, I was finishing my fifth-year teaching and recall asking myself, “Why are the standardized tests such an evil thing? Don’t we need assessments to measure what the students are learning?” (ChenFeng, 2009). 

One of the signature education policies in my early career was the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act of 2002. Teachers have different opinions of NCLB, but most educators and policy makers would agree that NCLB brought upon a culture of “over-testing and one size fits all mandates” (Duncan, 2015). During the 12 years I taught middle school math in Los Angeles, not once did I examine the intersection of white supremacy and education policy in my own classroom instruction. Overwhelmed by the high-stakes testing environment, and with a roster of 130 students, I was not aware of the impact of federal education policy on my teaching beliefs and instruction. In retrospect, I upheld color-evasive ideology and believed in a pedagogy that promoted the myth of meritocracy (Bonilla-Silva, 2017 as cited in Diem & Welton, 2020). In other words, I did not consider how race and racism shows up in the classroom or the ways I was complicit in perpetuating the false notion of pulling ourselves up by the bootstraps.

 Some of the consequences of color-evasive ideology and the myth of meritocracy include what community organizers Tema Okun and Kenneth Jones (2016) call characteristics of white supremacy culture. White supremacy culture can show up in micropolitical (e.g., individual and interpersonal) and macropolitical (e.g., institutional and ideological) ways of schooling. Couched in good intentions for students of color, characteristics of white supremacy have been historically designed as normative practices of teaching and learning. For example, the sense of urgency is a characteristic of white supremacy culture. In my teaching career, I felt the constant pressure of this sense of urgency that made it difficult to think long term (Okun & Jones, 2016). In my classroom, I privileged covering of a wide range of material efficiently (e.g., 12 chapters of Algebra 1 in grade eight) and consequently was unable to support students who needed additional instructional scaffolds.

As Holmes Scholars, our aim is not only to advocate for a liberatory education policy agenda at the institutional level, but also to make the work concrete and actionable within our school communities. It is with this second goal in mind that my colleagues, Dani Wadlington, Sonia Cintron, and I co-authored, the Dismantling Racism in Mathematics Instruction Workbook in partnership with Ed-Trust West. This tool provides teachers an opportunity to interrogate their actions, beliefs, and values around teaching mathematics. The workbook is centered around the following themes: 1) How do we know what we know about our subject matter? 2) Why do teach the way we do in our coursework? 3) Who does and who does not benefit from our instructional practice?

Will you join me in adopting a racial justice approach to teaching equitable math instruction as we seek advocate for Black joy inside our schools.


Duncan, A. (2015, December 4). Secretary Duncan: “Finally a Fix to No Child Left Behind” Homeroom the official blog of the U.S. Department of Education. https://blog.ed.gov/2015/12/secretary-duncan-finally-a-fix-to-no-child-left-behind/

Diem, S., & Welton, A. D. (2020). Anti-racist Educational Leadership and Policy: Addressing Racism in Public Education. Routledge.

Jones, K. & Okun, T. “White Supremacy Culture,” Dismantling Racism: A Workbook for Social Change Groups, 2016 Workbook,” https://resourcegeneration.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/01/2016-dRworks-workbook.pdf


Toolbox for Dismantling Racism in Mathematics – https://tinyurl.com/dismantlingracism1

Workbook “Stride 1 – Dismantling Racism in mathematics Instruction” A pathway to equitable math instruction. https://equitablemath.org/


Andre ChenFeng an AACTE Holmes Scholar, is a Ph.D. student at Claremont Graduate University, with a focus on integrating contemplative practices and critical theories in higher education, specifically, around the critical healing of teacher educators of color. He is also an adjunct faculty member at Claremont Graduate University in the Teacher Education Program.

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