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What is a Math Gatebreaker™️? Teaching 6-12 Math Intervention (Routledge)

title of blog post: what is a math gatebreaker

To understand what a math gatebreaker is we must first understand what math gatekeeping is. When I first became a math teacher, I didn’t know “mathematics gatekeeping” was a real thing, but now I’m committed to breaking down as many gates as possible. Algebra 1 is likely the most notorious gatekeeper because the course acts as a gate to higher academic achievement and success. When students pass Algebra 1 they essentially unlock the gate to higher level math courses, those courses are needed for high school graduation and college acceptance. When students fail Algebra 1 they are essentially met with a closed gate, their options are only to keep repeating Algebra 1 until they pass it, wasting valuable time in high school and increasing the likelihood they drop out.

In fact there are three cycles that make up this gatekeeping of mathematics and we can think of these cycles as gates. These gates are in the way of increasing outcomes for students who struggle with math in our current education system. There is a student gate, a teacher gate, and a systemic gate. Some students are stuck behind one gate, repeating the cycle over and over again and some students start within one cycle and get flung around only to be met with another gate as they find themselves stuck in yet another cycle.

The Gatekeeping Cycles of Mathematics

three cyclical gatekeeping cycles of mathematics contributing to low math achievement

Image from the upcoming book, Teaching 6-12 Math Intervention: A practical framework to engage students who struggle and break the gatekeeping cycles of mathematics (Routledge). To be the first to get notified about book release updates, join the Book Launch Team here.

Math Gatekeeping Cycle 1: Student Gate

The first gate in the way of improving outcomes for students who struggle is actually the student gate made up of math trauma and math anxiety.

In case you’re tempted to fluff off math trauma or math anxiety, you should understand that when students with math anxiety see numbers, hyperactivity takes place in their amygdala, the brain center associated with processing fear (Young et al., 2012). That is important for us to know because when activity in that brain center increases, problem-solving ability decreases. These brain structures are also responsible for retention and math fluency, two common challenges with math teachers of students who struggle.

Math Gatekeeping Cycle 2: Teacher Gate

The second gate in the way of improving outcomes for students who struggle is a teacher gate made up of remedial content and teacher expectations.

While there are many ways teachers can show and demonstrate that they either have high expectations or low expectations of their students, the most impactful way teachers can communicate high expectations to students is by teaching grade level content. Researcher John Hattie released a meta-analysis of 252 influences and effect sizes related to student achievement and the third most impactful way to increase student achievement was teacher estimates of achievement (Hattie, 2017).

Math Gatekeeping Cycle 3: Systemic Gate

The third gate in the way of improving outcomes for students who struggle is a systemic gate made up of deficit math labeling and remedial courses. This is big, really big. Systemic inequities are challenging to discuss at best and divisive at worst, but they must be a part of the gatekeeping and equity conversation in mathematics. The systemic gate is related to institutional racism, a topic I'm not an expert on and is outside the scope of this post. Institutional racism is a sad and unfortunate truth of this nation, and has made its way into mathematics education. When we know more, we can do better. When we know and acknowledge that systemic inequities and institutional racism exist in education and mathematics, we can equip ourselves as teachers with awareness and strategies to counteract them. While fixing systemic expectations feels insurmountable, there are things we can do as math teachers within our classrooms to lessen the effects of systemic inequities of the children we have the privilege to teach.

A joint paper from the National Council of Supervisors of Mathematics (NCSM) and TODOS Mathematics for All, gives examples of how ingrained deficit labeling has become with mathematics, most notably that labeling “slow kids,” “low kids,” “high kids,” actually impacts the type of mathematics instruction students receive (NCSM and TODOS, 2016).

Be A Math Gatebreaker

a quote about what a math gatebreaker is

While the gates I’ve identified paint a bleak picture, there is hope. Inside the upcoming book, Teaching 6-12 Math Intervention, are tools, strategies, and activities you can do with your students to break these gates and become what I call a gatebreaker.

To be a math gatebreaker is to help any student who struggles with math to recover their mathematical confidence, find academic success, and achieve at high levels in mathematics thereby breaking the gates that have held them back.

We know mathematics has long been a gatekeeper, so let’s break the gate for our students who need us the most. The book will be your guide.

To be the first to get notified about book release updates, join the Book Launch Team at

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