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Students Are Being Mathematically Abused!


by Johnny W. Lott, NCTM President 2002-2004
NCTM News Bulletin, December 2003

The Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA) cites educational neglect as one form of child abuse. The law defines educational neglect as the allowance of chronic truancy, failure to enroll a child of mandatory school age in school, and failure to attend to a special educational need. CAPTA also identifies emotional abuse (psychological, verbal abuse or mental injury) as child abuse. This kind of abuse includes acts or omissions by the parents or other caregivers that have caused, or could cause, serious behavioral, cognitive, emotional, or mental disorders. Information on the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Web site ( indicates that a combination of different types of child abuse is usually present in any case of abuse. Also, the site suggests that assessment of child neglect requires consideration of the family's cultural values and standards of care as well as recognition that the failure to provide the necessities of life may be related to poverty.

The mathematics education of students is being treated as a special educational need and is receiving much attention from federal and state governments. It is time for us to consider whether or not the requirements and demands of government, frequently mandated without adequate funding to support the requirements, are contributing to the mathematical abuse of students in schools.

Imagine a school where students are packed 40 to a class in a small, windowless room. The district, state, and federal levels have set ambitious goals for all students to perform well on various types of tests, regardless of proficiency in English and other challenges. Imagine that this classroom has a teacher who is knowledgeable but has little experience and very limited resources for these students. For example, she may not have enough books for each student to have one of their own. Suppose the curriculum is mathematically rich, but the room offers no space for adequate technology to explore the curriculum thoroughly. In addition, suppose that this is not a school in an impoverished area but a school in a state that is in some economic distress. The school is in a state that is struggling to mandate and implement testing as required by the No Child Left Behind Act as well as under its own mandated testing guidelines. Finally, imagine that the teacher has just returned from a professional development conference. There she tried to match state standards to sessions that would help her prepare her students for the plethora of coming tests, meet the mandated district and state standards, and understand the realities of today's classes. But she has no time to think by herself or with others about how to make lessons more appealing to students.

It is a legitimate question to ask whether these students are being abused mathematically, not by the teacher, but by a system that places them in a situation where their cognitive development may be impaired. They may be the innocent victims of a system that is demanding excellence but providing very few of the resources, both human and physical, that are needed to produce that excellence. They maybe part of a system that lacks the vision or commitment to pay for what is truly important.

"If you value it, you will pay for it" was the sentiment expressed at a recent conference of business and education leaders. The mathematical abuse of students in many of today's schools is the result of a system that spouts the rhetoric of progress but does not always back it up with adequate funding. Not all advances in education depend on money; administrative, parental, and community support, quality professional development for teachers, and classrooms conducive to learning are all critical to students' success. However, without the necessary resources and better use of them to support the mathematics education of students, we are on a course of mathematical abuse that will result in many who drop out of school, many who are not allowed to develop cognitively because of highstakes assessments, and many who are simply not exposed to the technology that they need to thrive in the 21st century. These students should not be penalized or belittled for knowledge that they may have had no chance to learn in an appropriate way in an adequately funded school with proper resources for teachers and students.

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