Equity Expander

Higher education is examining its practices to root out bias. Professor of Mathematics Education Judit Moschkovich is on the leading edge of the movement.

University of California Professor Judit Moschkovich knows what it’s like to walk into a room where the shared culture, language, and mores are unfamiliar. Born in Argentina, Moschkovich moved to the United States when she was 14 and had to begin all over learning how to fit in and find a place for herself.

Today, Moschkovich, a professor of mathematics education at the University of California, Santa Cruz, studies how bilingual learners, in particular Latinx students, in K–12 schools learn mathematics. Her groundbreaking work demonstrates that learning math in a second language need not be an obstacle to understanding mathematical concepts—particularly important because math proficiency is foundational to STEMM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics, and Medicine) careers.

As a researcher in mathematics education, she continues to face the persistent belief in the United States that girls are not good at math, she says. This belief is not universal, and there is no current data­—about brains, minds, SAT scores—to support it. In the United States, there may have been gender differences over the years in terms of girls’ course taking, SAT scores, and confidence, but those have been documented to decrease when addressed by policy, instruction, and programs to support girls.

Because of her own experiences as an immigrant, her work on equity in math education, and her commitment to social justice, Moschkovich has taken on another role at UC Santa Cruz. She is the equity adviser for the Division of Social Sciences and serves on a campus-wide committee charged with addressing equity issues for faculty. Such a role and initiative are now common at many major research universities across the United States—and in some respects, this work is akin to the examination and work that is going on at companies across the country to help make organizations and their practices more diverse, inclusive, and equitable.

Professor Moschkovich earned her bachelor’s degree in physics at the University of Minnesota (she was the only woman in her graduating class in her major), and her PhD in education from UC Berkeley’s Department of Education in Mathematics Science and Technology. She joined UC Santa Cruz in 1999 in a tenure-track position as assistant professor, after teaching at other institutions as a lecturer, including UC Berkeley. Moschkovich was named a 2018 Fellow of the American Educational Research Association (AERA) and received the 2019 Distinguished Scholar Award from the Special Interest Group for Research in Mathematics Education in AERA—the first woman to receive that award. In 2019, she was the recipient of the Martin M. Chemers Award for Outstanding Research from the Social Sciences Division of UC Santa Cruz. In addition to writing journal articles and book chapters, she edited the book Language and Mathematics Education: Multiple Perspectives and Directions for Research (2010) and coedited several books.  

Moschkovich sat down with Diversity Woman to talk about her experience as an immigrant in a society and educational system that expect language conformity, her research on bilingual learners and mathematics, and her role as an equity adviser at UC Santa Cruz.

Diversity Woman: Tell us about the identities that you embrace.

Judit Moschkovich: I was born and raised in Argentina. My grandparents were Jewish immigrants from Russia and Poland. My parents and I immigrated to the US when I was 14. My greatest struggle has been to be all of who I am when confronted with pressure to either pass for US American or choose between being Latina or Jewish. I am a middle-class secular Jew, the result of three generations living in Argentina. My grandparents were poor or working class—one was a barber—and my mother dropped out of the sixth grade to work in a textile factory. I have been a feminist for as long as I can remember. My grandmothers’ mother tongue was Yiddish, my mother’s mother tongue was Portuguese [she was born in Brazil and lived there until age 10], and mine is Spanish. I label myself bilingual in proud opposition to the language loss in my family’s history. After living for over 50 years in a country that is a cemetery for heritage languages, I struggle to continue to be not only bilingual but also biliterate.

DW: How has your background influenced your work in studying the learning of mathematical concepts in K-12?

JM: I’m sure my experiences influenced my research choices. My own experience in STEMM was complicated because I was both a woman and an immigrant. For example, I was advised not to take calculus in high school—which is really a disaster if you want to major in physics in college!

That’s when I started realizing that in this country math is perceived as something that either you’re born good at or not born good at, which is a false assumption.

DW: Tell us about your research.

JM: For 30 years, I have been documenting how Latinx and other students in secondary classrooms who are bilingual communicate mathematically. They may be using imperfect English, but they can still understand and discuss mathematical concepts. I use video cases to support teachers in examining their own preconceptions about what math competence is, and how to uncover the math in what students say and do, all through an asset- or strength-based model of learners, instead of focusing on what students don’t know or can’t do [a deficit model of learners].

In some school districts, the thinking is “English learners just can’t engage in mathematical discussions. They must learn English first.” But if you wait for an adolescent to learn English, that can take about six years, and they are left behind in math. Students are going to lose critical years of math education and fall irrevocably behind.

DW: What are the implications for careers in STEMM?

JM: Significant. If students are stuck in a cycle of remedial math classes or do not have access to advanced math courses, they are effectively cut out of careers in STEMM fields.

DW: The prevailing thinking is still that girls are not as good at math as boys. Does research support this?

JM: No. There is a misconception that boys are better at math than girls [due to genetics or predilection]. Back in the early ’80s, there was a lot of research about how girls and boys have different innate abilities for understanding or excelling at math, to explain why more boys were in higher-level math classes than girls or why there was a gap in SAT scores. But over the years, those enrollment numbers have changed and that gap has shrunk, proving that it is not genetic or brain based or about how girls’ minds work. It turns out that one of the strongest correlations between those who succeeded in math and went further was how many math courses they had taken. So, success is about preparation and access to courses. With access to the same number and type of math classes, girls can do just as well as boys. So, in effect, it’s an access issue, not a brain issue. Another difference between boys and girls was confidence in their math thinking, which makes sense if one is constantly being told one is not good at math. As we know from stereotype-threat research, that can impact one’s performance!

DW: You are equity adviser for the Division of Social Science. What does this work entail?

JM: I am focused on a couple of different things, mainly revolving around faculty. One role is to help faculty members articulate, describe, and include in their personnel review statements the diversity work they do. Now, in their [performance] reviews, faculty are evaluated in three areas—research, teaching, and service—and that includes how they’ve contributed to issues of diversity in any of those three areas. That work can be taken into account for promotions or salary increases. And then faculty need to learn how to explain and write about this. For example, one’s research may not be on an equity topic, but in their teaching they can implement equity practices, and in their service capacity, they can choose to work on a committee that focuses on equity. Faculty may not have realized until now that their equity-focused work is incorporated into their job, so if they do that work, they need to know how to articulate and amplify that work for their reviews.

DW: In the corporate sector, it is often women who end up in equity roles, such as chief diversity officer. Is this an issue in academia as well?

JM: Absolutely. There is research on what is called “cultural taxation.” It’s often women or faculty of color who do most of the equity-oriented service work. That just leads to greater workloads and the danger that this work will not be recognized as crucial and therefore not taken into consideration in their performance review. Hopefully, over time, faculty can learn to document this work so it can be included in the review process and treated as an important component of what all faculty do. DW

“There is a misconception that boys are better at math than girls.”

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