Carl's Teaching Blog

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Reviewing #NCTMAnnual proposals and the ‘Access and Equity Question’

For a few weeks last June I was one of the lucky volunteers who were able to review proposals for San Antonio’s 2017 NCTM conference. It was a lot of reading and it is a great opportunity to hear what math educators from around the world think should be talked about at the conference. Reading the words from hundreds of speakers provided a glimpse of math education thinking from the minds of teachers and educators across countless numbers of different contexts. It was a rare kind of opportunity that was both a great honor and also genuinely fun.

The Access and Equity Question

After reading over two hundred proposals, I noticed that some of the prompts from the application were better addressed than others. Particularly, the responses to the Access and Equity question were at times brief, or sometimes didn’t seem to address the question that was being asked. This question is the last written section of the proposal application form and asks:

“How does your presentation align with NCTM’s dedication to equity and access?”

While most presenters have detailed explanations about their proposal for the other sections of the application, the amount of detail and thoughtfulness was consistently lower for this section. In the proposals I reviewed, this section was shorter than other sections of the application. While this section allowed for up to 500 characters some applicants submitting answers similar to the following:

  • This session will be taught in a way that is accessible to all learners.
  • All students will be able to benefit from the math in this session.
  • The presentation slides will be accessible on my blog and student resources can be accessed on the internet.

The brevity of these responses surprised me, but more surprising was how these type of responses don’t actually address the question. Perhaps many applicants are not aware of the NCTM’s official position on Access and Equity. It is easily available through a Google search. In my opinion it is very succinct and well-written.

Creating, supporting, and sustaining a culture of access and equity require being responsive to students’ backgrounds, experiences, cultural perspectives, traditions, and knowledge when designing and implementing a mathematics program and assessing its effectiveness. Acknowledging and addressing factors that contribute to differential outcomes among groups of students are critical to ensuring that all students routinely have opportunities to experience high-quality mathematics instruction, learn challenging mathematics content, and receive the support necessary to be successful. Addressing equity and access includes both ensuring that all students attain mathematics proficiency and increasing the numbers of students from all racial, ethnic, linguistic, gender, and socioeconomic groups who attain the highest levels of mathematics achievement.

– NCTM Position on Access and Equity

I emphasized the portion above to highlight what was lacking from a number of proposals. The three short sample responses listed above, and many similar ones that were longer, did not address the main ideas of this position. While these proposals address the words ‘access’ and ‘equity,’ they don’t describe alignment with the position outlined by the NCTM. A surprising number of this year’s proposals failed to acknowledge or address reasons that different student groups students fail to attain mathematical proficiency. Inequitable outcomes are pervasive among math students. It is an unfortunate reality that the student groups listed have inequitable outcomes on such a scale that it must play out across every educational setting. Presenters that don’t articulate their thinking about how their proposal is related to these outcomes make it very hard for reviewers to evaluate. When reviewers are faced with proposals having short responses or responses that don’t address the NCTM’s position, we’re left wondering why this information was not included in their proposal.

Responding to the Question

Educators should view the  NCTM’s position as an opportunity to “acknowledge and address” factors that affect “students from all racial, ethnic, linguistic, gender, and socioeconomic groups” when they look to share their work at an NCTM conference. It is definitely hard, but thinking about the issues of Access and Equity are important for the time in which we live and work. Because submitting a proposal to a national conference is competitive, I can understand why people would want to write about their strongest areas, which might not always feel related to the issues described in NCTM’s statement. The truth is, proposals that fail to address the NCTM’s statement in the section stick out like a sore thumb and those proposals are worrisome to reviewers.

The proposal forms were made to include the section for a reason, and the onus is on all of us to try and step up to the ambitious position as it will only help us to serve our students better. Let’s think about how we could take a step forward to improve. Here is an examples from Lori Keleher and Lindsey Brewer’s talk Transforming Ordinary into Extraordinary: Motivate, Engage, and Challenge Every Student, which addresses the statement.

Our activities are designed to offer access to every learner in a diverse classroom. Each activity can be accessed at various proficiency levels. The examples from our own classrooms illustrate adjustments that can be made to support the struggling learner and to challenge the advancing learner. Our presentation contains videos of our owns students engaged in the activities at a public high school with an ESL population of about 30% and a free-and-reduced lunch population of about 45%.

This statement provides a lot of information to reviewers about how this session will address the NCTM’s position statement. Theirs is just one example, here are other examples from different conference strands.

Focused, coherent and rigorous standards, shared across states, are essential to equity and access. Poor and minority students have too often been shunted into lower level tracks which do not give them the opportunity to become ready for college and career. Holding students, teachers, and schools accountable to high standards of learning and teaching is the key to narrowing achievement gaps.

– Building Conceptual and Procedural Understanding

We are concerned that schools that serve diverse and low-income students disproportionally use educational technology such as CAI to “learn or practice basic skills” (Gray, et al., 2010, p. 3). In this session, we will specifically address what role CAI should play to promote equitable mathematics instruction at high schools that predominantly serve low-income, students of color. We will also address how CAI could actually hinder standards-based education reform in mathematics at these schools.

– Access and Equity: Teaching Mathematics with an Equity Stance

The proposed workshop focuses on how the questions “What do you notice? What do you wonder?” can be used to promote reasoning and problem solving for all students. In our experience, launching tasks by presenting students with visual or concrete representations and asking them to make note of what they notice and wonder provides access to all students (e.g., beginning with visual or concrete representations allows English language learners to access the task; there aren’t “incorrect” noticings).

– Teaching, Learning, & Curriculum: Best Practices for Engaging Students in Productive Struggle

Workshop is aligned to work done in our highly successful MathLabTM implemented in three distinct regions of New Mexico. Student and adult participants reflected the varied populations in our state. Students and teachers were recruited from SPED, English Learners, gifted and regular education classes. Excellence and equity was ensured by collaboration in the design and facilitation of high quality instruction, rigorous math tasks, continuous use of formative assessment and differentiation.

– Building Conceptual and Procedural Understanding

This presentation will help show how teachers can expose mathematics and computer science to students of all backgrounds with a wide variety of interests. It will show that computer science is not simply a topic for boys who like to code, but rather a discipline that can be harnessed to explore mathematics at a deep level; a tool that can be used to discover relationships. The presentation will discuss several free tools that can be accessed by students of all economic backgrounds.

– The “M” in STEM

None of these statements are recipes or templates which should be copied. The applicants for these proposals were able to do two things which are listed in the closing sentence from NCTM’s statement above.

Addressing equity and access includes both ensuring that all students attain mathematics proficiency and increasing the numbers of students from all racial, ethnic, linguistic, gender, and socioeconomic groups who attain the highest levels of mathematics achievement.

These proposals all were able to address the ‘and’ in the statement above. These statements go far enough to explain how their proposed talk will benefit students from one or more of the groups listed in NCTM’s policy statement. In all these cases it’s clear to the reviewer that these presenters have taken the time to understand the NCTM’s position on Access and Equity, and it is no surprise that their talks have been accepted for the 2017 annual.

NCTM providing space for discussion of Access and Equity is a sign of how important these issues are when determining which proposals to accept. Hopefully, this post can help you address those issues if you intend to propose a talk for an upcoming conference.

Lastly, I wanted to say thanks to all of the presenters who agreed to let me post their Access and Equity statements here! If you want more information about the NCTM conference planning process, Robert Kaplinsky wrote a bunch of great posts here.


Starting off with my plans for next year


Clog: Remote Start


  1. robertkaplinsky

    Carl, thank you for taking the time to write about this. After reading what you wrote, I wish I could find what I submitted so I could look at it with extra perspective. Two thoughts resonate with me: – Proposal submitters need to realize that this is very competitive and that each question will be scored on a rubric, so it is worthwhile to make sure you understand what is being asked.

    – We need to make sure we are doing a better job supporting access and equity at more than just a superficial level. If we are doing it, then we should be able to describe how. If not, then we need to rethink how we’re approaching it.

    Thanks again for sharing this Carl.

  2. Colleen Werner

    Carl, thank you for this thorough discussion about the quality of applicants’ responses. I am writing my first proposal to speak at NCTM and found it very helpful. The wide variety of sample responses you provided with commentary helped my understand the level of detail sought by the committee.

    • c2cmathed_webmaster

      Thanks for the feedback Colleen. I’m glad that it is helpful!

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