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Research Summary: The Relation between Reform Teaching and Equity in Mathematics Education

The Study

Franco, C., Sztajn, P., Ortigão, M. I. R. (2007). Does reform teaching raise all students’ math scores? An analysis of the role that the socioeconomic status of students plays in closing the achievement gap. Journal for Research in Mathematics Education 2007, Vol. 38, No. 4, 393-419.


To what extent does reform teaching contribute to higher overall school achievement in mathematics and narrow the achievement gap in mathematics between students who attend schools with low average socioeconomic status and students who attend schools with high average socioeconomic status? And can it reduce the equity gap that divides students within the same school but who are of different socioeconomic status?


Reform of school mathematics has been an important topic for the mathematics education research community for many years. Calls for change have escalated since the 1980s, with particular attention to changes in mathematics teaching. Many documents highlight the need for teachers to take into account the role of social issues as well as up-to-date knowledge on how students learn. A new study of results from the Brazilian national assessment supports the notion that reform teaching improves all students’ mathematics performance regardless of their socioeconomic status.

For this study, reform teaching is empirically defined to include activities related to the implementation of high-demand tasks that foster the development of mathematics concepts and understanding. It is aligned with the vision promoted by NCTM’s Professional Teaching Standards in which reform teaching is a style of instruction that encourages students to communicate mathematical ideas; nurtures intellectual risk-taking by promoting conjecturing, problem solving, and investigation of mathematical ideas; and provides students with opportunities to deepen their understanding of mathematics.


Creso Franco, Paola Sztajn, and Maria Isabel Ramalho Ortigão conducted the study and report their findings in an article in the July 2007 issue of the Journal for Research in Mathematics Education (see below for full citation).

Franco, Sztajn, and Ortigão’s work is the first large-scale report to document the relation between reform and equity in mathematics in Brazil. Studies in England and the United States have sparked interest among Brazilian researchers about whether reform teaching is appropriate for all students or whether it favors students from certain backgrounds. The authors looked at research from two studies that appeared to offer contradictory results.

A study in England by Jo Boaler used a fixed average (low income) student socioeconomic status (SES) in two schools while examining varied teaching approaches. When Boaler compared students’ performance between schools, her results pointed to reform teaching as beneficial to low SES students. In a study in the United States by Sarah Theule Lubienski, all the students learned math by a reform approach but the SES of the students varied. Lubienski’s analysis of data from students of differing SES in the same classroom showed that reform was problematic for the low SES students.

Franco, Sztajn, and Ortigão contend that the British and American studies approached the issues in different ways, obtaining different results. Franco, Sztajn, and Ortigão then used teacher survey data and student achievement data to investigate the relationship between reform teaching and performance in math by students of different SES in Brazil.

The researchers were interested in assessing whether reform teaching was related to both educational quality and equity. In other words, they wanted to determine whether reform teaching was related to increased student achievement for all students and, more important, whether those gains depended on students’ SES.

The study reconciles the seemingly conflicting results of the two earlier studies. An analysis of between-school results leads the researchers to conclude that reform teaching is associated with higher average achievement. On the other hand, their results also suggest that reform teaching contributes to greater within-school inequity.

The study accounts for this seeming contradiction by indicating that while reform teaching raises all students’ achievement levels and thus can narrow the gap between schools, it is often the case that schools with higher SES students provide reform teaching whereas schools with low SES students provide traditional teaching. Because reform teaching is associated with an overall higher school average achievement, implementing reform teaching can be particularly beneficial to those students who are less likely to receive it.

To account for the greater within-school inequity, the authors concluded that reform is good for low SES students, but has been more beneficial for their high SES peers.


Given the between-school and within-school effects of reform teaching, the authors showed that reform teaching is beneficial to 90 percent of the Brazilian students, whether of low or high socioeconomic status. It reduced the achievement gap between schools for students of low SES and students of high SES. However, results showed that reform is associated with an increase in within-school inequity, leading researchers to conclude that socioeconomic status plays a role in the distribution of achievement.

It is important to take into account the fact that students of high SES often have a better support system than their low SES schoolmates and are more likely to be in a position where they can take advantage of whatever school resources or practices are available. Therefore, just providing schools with resources or changing teaching approaches is not enough to ensure that all students will benefit equally from the instruction offered.

Who Was Studied?

Approximately two percent of grade eight students in Brazil, totaling 50,300 students in 3,519 classrooms and 2,825 schools.


In terms of income, Brazil is far less equitable than either the United Kingdom or the United States. These economic inequalities are intertwined with educational inequalities, resulting in 20 percent of elementary and middle school students failing to advance to the next grade and an illiteracy rate of 13 percent.

Other Resources

Boaler, J. (2002). Learning from teaching: Exploring the relationship between reform curriculum and equity. Journal for Research in Mathematics Education, 33, 239–258.

Lubienski, S.T. (2000). Problem solving as a means toward mathematics for all: An exploratory look through a class lens. Journal for Research in Mathematics Education, 31, 454–482.

Journal for Research in Mathematics Education (JRME) Archive 

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