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Teaching About Economic Inequality in United States Secondary Mathematics Classrooms


Education has always been touted as a great equalizer, yet socioeconomic intergenerational mobility remains unlikely (Chetty et. al, 2014), with schools reproducing economic inequality as a “de facto socioeconomic sorting mechanism” (Duncan-Andrade & Morrell, 2008, p. 2). Young people are the next generation of civic actors who will decide how to respond to economic inequality. But do they learn about it in school? At the secondary level, while social studies courses may be a natural fit for teaching about economic inequality, mathematical knowledge and ways of thinking are essential to collecting and analyzing data about inequality as well as constructing and critiquing its representations (Gutstein, 2003).

This dissertation research examines to what extent a broad range of mathematics teachers from various backgrounds and who teach in various school contexts think about and teach about economic inequality. This mixed methods investigation draws on a representative nationwide survey of public school secondary mathematics teachers as well as in-depth, phenomenological interviews with mathematics teachers who reported teaching about economic inequality.

A majority of teachers surveyed reported addressing economic inequality in their classrooms, predicted by factors such as teachers’ level of political engagement. In interviews, teachers discussed how teaching about inequality can fulfill mathematical goals and goals of increasing students’ awareness of inequality. Teachers see economic inequality lessons fitting into different mathematics courses, most notably statistics courses. They most often discussed teaching about economic inequality during particular curricular moments, with many discussing addressing economic inequality as current events arise or in relation to financial literacy.

Drawing on Ernest’s (2009) framework on the nature of mathematics and Westheimer and Kahne’s (2004) civic education framework, I found that how mathematics teachers approach teaching about economic inequality is shaped by how they think about the kind of mathematician and the kind of informed civic actor they hope students will become.

The study findings point to possible directions in teacher education for preparing future mathematics teachers to teach about social and political issues such as economic inequality and build students’ quantitative civic literacy.

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