Mathematics Project

Teaching About Data Can Mean Leading Challenging Discussions

By Sarah D. Sparks — July 31, 2023 8 min read
Math Specialist Jenna Laib leads a 1st grade class in a Slow Reveal Graph exercise about heart rates in different animals at Michael Driscoll School in Brookline, Mass., on June 1, 2023. Laib curates a website for Slow Reveal Graphs, which are instructional routines that promote sense making about data by gradually revealing information.
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This summer, as Georgia rolls out new math requirements, Kaycie Maddox’s challenge has as much to do with words as numbers.

Maddox, a math specialist for a regional education services agency, is helping train teachers across 13 school districts to integrate statistics and data science across K-12.

Students will need to learn to ask a question, decide what data needs to be collected and then, how to collect, analyze, and interpret the data. And that means teachers need a different approach to talking about math in their classrooms.

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First grade students participate in a Slow Reveal Graph exercise about heart rates in different animals led by Math Specialist Jenna Laib at Michael Driscoll School in Brookline, Mass. on June 1, 2023.
First grade students participate in a Slow Reveal Graph exercise about heart rates in different animals led by Math Specialist Jenna Laib at Michael Driscoll School in Brookline, Mass. on June 1, 2023.
Sophie Park for Education Week

“Most math teachers live at the ‘analyze’ phase of that,” Maddox said. “They want to just do probability outside of a context: find the mean, find the standard deviation, find the math answer—but we want them to do all that in the middle of a context where it makes sense.”

Contextual math discussions can be silly—comparing students who can curl their tongues to create Venn diagrams or calculating the ways people are most likely to lie on dating profiles, for example. They can also ask students to grapple with problems in their communities, such as rising obesity rates or chronic student absenteeism.

“Data is not just created to exist in a textbook,” said Jenna Laib, a math specialist in the K-8 Driscoll School in Brookline, Mass. She and other teachers say this contextual approach gets students excited about learning and applying math concepts, and some have even seen evidence that it can boost older students’ performance in advanced math. One San Antonio statistics teacher, for example, had better Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate performance in the subject after using a contextual approach than had been the case in his previous 16 years.

Teaching this math in context also can open up educators to often-bitter political debates over what data and topics are appropriate to use in the classroom. Such debates have roiled the conversation around California’s new math framework, which calls for more contextual and project-based learning, and similar criticisms have arisen over Utah’s forthcoming math standards revisions.

“It’s crazy, the political things we hear,” said Elizabeth Converse, the executive director of Utah Tech Leads, an industry group that is working to boost data science instruction there. “You’re talking about math curriculum standards and you have someone come to provide public comment and they call the entire board ‘groomers’ for integrating ‘woke ideology’ into curriculum. … So it’s much more difficult for people here to be that forward” about including social discussions in math.

Laib said it’s important to support teachers and students to have data science lessons in real-world contexts.

Teachers helping teachers

But for these project-based lessons to be effective, they require teachers to scaffold math content and develop students’ procedural fluency as they work through complex data questions, while at the same time negotiating the kind of potentially controversial classroom conversations that typically happen in science and social studies classes.

“In most traditional textbooks, probability is treated the same way algebra is treated, as a set of formulas to memorize,” said Dashiell Young-Saver, a San Antonio math teacher and the creator of Skew the Script, a database of statistics lessons based on social issues. “But probability and statistics is based in the real world, and the context and situations that give rise to the problems are nuanced and have all sorts of back doors—and are, for that reason, very interesting, but also very challenging.”

Data is not just created to exist in a textbook.

Christine Franklin, the K-12 statistical ambassador for the American Statistical Association, helped develop the ASA’s guidelines for data instruction in lower grades and has been active in developing Georgia’s new statistics and data science standards.

“I think elementary teachers are actually pretty excited about having more of the statistics standards in their curriculum,” she said, “Instead of being more computational, it’s more conceptual.”

But, she said teachers don’t get enough training, either in their preservice programs or in ongoing professional development on how to lead rigorous statistics conversations.

For the most part, teachers have been finding and vetting learning resources themselves through an informal, nationwide network of web sites, YouTube videos, and Reddit discussion groups.

Young-Saver builds lessons around real data sets that would encourage conversations, such as using conditional probability to track local food deserts—neighborhoods with little access to healthy food in groceries—via scatter plots and linear regression.

In his first year of using the new lessons, more of Young-Saver’s students took and passed the Advanced Placement Statistics exam than had been the case in the previous 16 years, an improvement he attributes to more meaningful student engagement with the contextual lessons. Today, more than 20,000 teachers use the Skew the Script lessons online, and he’s working with researchers at the University of Houston to test their effectiveness across statistics classes.

“A lot of math teachers say, ‘I wish our kids had better reading comprehension.’ I don’t think that’s the problem. A lot of problems are very contrived,” Young-Saver said. “I started teaching in Title I [high-poverty] schools in San Antonio, and when I asked students to find the class’s mean height or something like that, my students’ heads would start to go down, bored out of their minds.”

“You know you’ve written a good lesson if the word problem actually gives them insight into something they really care about,” he said.

Making ‘skeptical statisticians’

Joel Bazaire, a middle school math teacher at the independent University School of Nashville, and Shauna Hedgepeth, a veteran science teacher in Lamar County, Miss., have been working with fellow math teachers nationwide to develop “statistical investigations” that teach statistics and algebra concepts by allowing students to explore public data sets.

The lessons are designed to prompt challenging conversation in class around statistics including: hospital death rates from the trial of a local nurse who murdered patients; drug testing rates in the National Football League; and population demographics in China following the institution, beginning in 1979, of that country’s birth restriction laws. In addition to outlines for standards and walkthroughs of technology tools like the Common Online Data Analysis Platform, or CODAP, Bazaire and Hedgepeth provide resources for teachers on teaching data ethics and critical thinking discussions.

“We want to make skeptical statisticians, right?” Bazaire said. “We’re building these interactive investigations and really trying to raise students’ curiosity around stats—not just their aptitude with how to find the mean and median, but really getting them interested in asking leading questions, trying to find controversial angles, make a case, or defend a position.”

Geoff Hing, a data journalist for the nonprofit investigative news group the Marshall Project, said these deeper conversations on the use of data are important for students regardless of how much they will work with data in future careers.

“Mapping the difference between reality and something you see as a giant percentage point on television, the shading of a map on an Instagram post, or somebody talking about a data visualization as a talking head on the TikTok video—being able to understand where that number came from, down to the original experiences that generated the data, I think, is just really important for being a critical participant in society,” Hing said.

Teachers must grapple with just how far to lean into issues that could rile parents or the school board. It’s a moving target and highly dependent on the communities the schools serve, they said.

Back in Georgia, Tonya Clarke, a math coordinator in Clayton County Schools and one of Education Week’s 2023 Leaders to Learn From implemented weeklong math projects in middle schools based on social justice issues in the community. The “I’m W.O.K.E. Project,” (Widens Options through Knowledge and Empowerment) has drawn both critics and advocates.

See Also

Tonya Clarke, coordinator of K–12 mathematics in the division of school leadership and improvement for Clayton County Public Schools in Jonesboro, Ga., helps students with geometry at Adamson Middle School.
Tonya Clarke, coordinator of K–12 mathematics in the division of school leadership and improvement for the Clayton County Public Schools in Jonesboro, Ga., helps students with geometry while observing an 8th grade math class at Adamson Middle School late last year.
Dustin Chambers for Education Week
Mathematics Leader To Learn From Making Math Matter: A District Leader's Mission
Sarah Schwartz, February 6, 2023
11 min read

“When I talk to teachers, the biggest thing I remind them is, know your audience,” said Dione Maxwell, a math teacher at Loganville High School in nearby Walton County, Ga. She said she has to choose which data and topics to cover carefully. That might mean, for example, using a biology lesson about water pollution in lizard habitats to teach margins of error and false positives, rather than talking about public health data from the pandemic.

For example, “I use StatsMedic a lot, but I don’t use Skew the Script a lot,’ Maxwell said, referring to two different teacher-created statistics resource sites. “I really like the Skew the Script lesson plans, but I know my audience and I know the region that I live in. A lot of it could be very politically charged, and we don’t want them to get lost in the controversy over what we are trying to learn.”

Danielle Rabina, a math teacher at Brookline High School in Brookline, Mass., developed an elective course on data science and social justice, which incorporates argumentative writing and group presentations as well as algebra and statistical concepts. She said the school reaches out to parents at the start of each year to let them know what issues will be covered and how they can discuss the data lessons with students at home.

“We happen to be in a community filled with kids who are really activists, and because this class is a choice, they know what they are walking into when they sign up for it,” Rabina said. “I do think this is very culture dependent on the community you are working in. I have colleagues in California who told me, ‘We would never be able to talk about those topics in school; we would be fired.’”

Dive Deeper

This story is part of Miscalculating Math, a deep examination of math instruction.
Overview and key data: Advocates say reforms in math teaching are pushing out statistics and geometry and driving a drop in students’ math scores. Here’s what you need to know.
Q&As: Hear three professionals talk about how they use statistics and geometry in their careers.
Handy guide: Find tips, lesson ideas, and free resources for beefing up instruction in statistics and geometry.
Quiz: Test your knowledge of math concepts, and then see how U.S. students fared.
Complete Coverage: There’s even more to explore on this topic. Check out the complete collection, Miscalculating Math.

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