Nadine Ebri’s algebra classes are not like the ones you probably took in school.

Equations are practiced by students through singing, dancing, and drawing. Their activities revolve around their hobbies and interests, which include anime, gaming, and Minecraft. Problem-solving is a team sport, not an individual race to the right answer.

Ebri, a math teacher and technology specialist for Duval County Schools in Florida, is implementing new equity-promoting techniques. The argument goes that if students of color, girls, and low-income students participate, they will be more likely to pursue high-level math classes. This can lead to admission to competitive colleges and lucrative careers.

After Ebri shifted her emphasis to real-world problems and collaboration, her students, the majority of whom are Black, improved their scores on Florida’s math exam in 2020-21 – despite the fact that one-third of them were learning from home.

However, other, more audacious recommendations to make math more inclusive are causing havoc in the world of mathematics education. Schools are combining math “tracks” to put students of all abilities in the same classes, and adding data science courses with the same prestige as calculus, which has long been regarded as a gateway to a career in STEM fields – and elite colleges.

Another contentious issue is whether or not math education should include real-world problems involving racial and social inequities. Whether fair or not, that debate has become mired in the muck of “critical race theory” digressions.

Mathematicians and math educators have been pitted against each other as a result of the changes, which have sparked criticism from affluent parents who are upset about the elimination of gifted tracks. They’ve caused uproar in one state, California, where professors, parents, and teachers are arguing about proposed changes to the state’s K-12 math framework.

Opponents claim that the new trend effectively dumbs down math education. According to Wayne Bishop, a mathematics professor at California State University, Los Angeles, lower-achieving students frequently have deficits that begin in the early grades, and that is where the focus and energy should be directed.

Increasing hands-on projects, he claims, can move more children up the pipeline. However, this does not imply that students are well-prepared.

National test results show that many low-income students and students of color aren’t doing well in math, and haven’t been for a long time. This translates to large disparities later in lucrative STEM fields – science, technology, engineering, and math – where 70% of workers are white and 65% are male, according to an American Enterprise Institute survey.

The pandemic has only exacerbated the situation. According to a new national report, third-grade students’ math scores fell significantly during the pandemic. According to Curriculum Associates’ report, only 17 percent of third-graders in majority-white schools performed on grade level in math this fall, while only 4 percent of students in majority-Black schools did.

However, academics and parents are debating how to improve instruction to help historically low-achieving students while not slowing down high-flyers – especially since many advanced students come from affluent families that are resistant to change.

Making math more relevant by using real-life problems centered on social inequities has hit a nerve, as Republicans accuse teachers of overemphasizing race and racism in subjects like American history. Many Republican-led states have passed legislation to limit such debates.

Proponents of the California framework changes, on the other hand, have advocated for incorporating equity discussions into math classes.

Critics of the new approaches argue that teachers should focus more on routine math basics in order to help low-performing students improve. Many math teachers disagree. They want all of the same math taught, but with a stronger emphasis on access and equity.

In the midst of the pandemic, Ebri, a math teacher in Jacksonville, began to alter her teaching methods. She spent less time testing students’ comprehension and more time connecting their personal interests to math activities, which boosted their confidence.

“Kids should never have to change who they are in order to fit in,” Ebri said. “I should modify my instructions to meet their requirements.”

Ebri had already gained some notoriety as a math teacher. A video of one of her lessons went viral online in 2016, gaining tens of millions of views. It was a middle school algebra class, mostly made up of Black students, and they were working on long-division prompts written on a whiteboard.