Ability Labels: Disrupting “High,” “Medium,” and “Low” in Mathematics Education
A Position of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics
Ability Labels: Disrupting “High,” “Medium,” and “Low” in Mathematics
Do you, your school, or your district attempt to ensure that all students have access to mathematics learning opportunities that are rigorous, challenging, and affirming of their identities as learners and human beings? At the same time, do you, your school, or your district use terms such as “high,” “advanced,” “gifted,” “below basic,” “far below basic,” “remedial,” and “low” to characterize students’ mathematical abilities? These practices are fundamentally incompatible. If our society is to ever make high-quality mathematics teaching and learning for each and every student a reality, the practice of ability labeling must end.
Question: Why is labeling students “high,” “medium,” and “low” problematic?
Ability labels are widely used in education and especially in mathematics education. They are connected to cultural beliefs that frame mathematical ability as innate and fixed, positioning some people as “good at math” and others as “bad” at the subject
(Boaler, 2016). Furthermore, mathematical abilities are frequently associated with a narrow range of qualities, particularly speed and accuracy in computation (Boaler & Staples, 2008) as well as whiteness, Asianness, and maleness (Martin, 2009). The following declarations highlight problems with
these ways of thinking and acting and assert the need for change at many levels of policy and practice.
Boaler, J. (2016). Mathematical mindsets. Jossey-Bass.
Boaler, J., & Staples, M. (2008). Creating Mathematical Futures through an Equitable Teaching Approach: The Case of Railside School. Teachers College
Record, 110(3), 608-645.
Bush, Roy, G. J., & Jackson, C. (2020). Catalyzing change in middle
school mathematics: Initiating critical conversations. The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, Inc.
Featherstone, H., Crespo, S., Jilk, L. M., Oslund, J. A., Parks, A. N., & Wood, M. (2011). Smarter Together!: Collaboration and Equity in Elementary Math
Classroom. National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.
Huinker, D., Yeh, C., & Marshall, A. M. (2020). Catalyzing change in early
childhood and elementary mathematics: Initiating critical conversations.The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, Inc.
Jilk, L. M. (2016, March 2016). Supporting teacher noticing of students' mathematical strengths. Mathematics Teacher Educator, 4(2), 188-199.
Joseph, G. G. (2011). The crest of the peacock: Non-European roots
of mathematics (3rd ed.). Princeton University Press.
Louie, N. (2017). The culture of exclusion in mathematics education and its persistence in equity-oriented teaching. Journal for Research in
Mathematics Education, 28(5), 488–519.
Louie, N. (2020). Agency discourse and the reproduction of hierarchy in mathematics instruction. Cognition and Instruction, 38(1), 1–26.
Martin, D. B. (2009). Researching race in mathematics education. Teachers College
Record, 111(2), 295–338.
Nasir, N. S., & Hand, V. (2008). From the court to the classroom: Opportunities for engagement, learning, and identity in basketball and classroom mathematics. Journal of the Learning Sciences, 17(2), 143–179.
National Council of Supervisors of Mathematics, & TODOS: Mathematics for All. (2016). Mathematics education through the lens of social justice ... - todos:
Math. Mathematics education through the lens of social justice: Acknowledgment, actions, and accountability. https://www.todos-math.org/assets/docs2016/2016Enews/3.pospaper16_wtodos_8pp.pdf
National Council of Supervisors of Mathematics. (2020, Spring). Closing the
opportunity gap: A call for detracking mathematics - NCSM. Closing the Opportunity Gap: A Call for Detracking Mathematics. https://www.mathedleadership.org/docs/resources/positionpapers/NCSMPositionPaper19.pdf
National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. (2018). Catalyzing change in
high school mathematics: Initiating critical conversations. Catalyzing Change
Series. National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.
Oakes, J., Wells, A. S., Jones, M., & Datnow, A. (1997). Detracking: The social construction of ability, cultural politics, and resistance to reform. Teachers
College Record, 98(3), 482–510.
Rubel, L. (2017). Equity-directed instructional practices: Beyond the dominant perspective. Journal of Urban Mathematics Education, 10(2), 66–105.
Saxe, G. B. (1988). Candy selling and math learning. Educational Researcher,