Elitism in Mathematics: How Disadvantaged Children in the US and South Africa Are Falling Behind

The study of mathematics, a subject critical to individual success and societal development, has become increasingly elitist in recent years. While mathematics has always held a certain level of prestige, growing income inequality and underfunding of public education systems in countries such as the United States and South Africa have widened the opportunity gap. This disparity not only robs poorer children of social and economic mobility it also perpetuates the cycle of poverty and undermines national progress, explains Lindiwe Matlali. Banner image: Shutterstock// Ground Picture
Elitism in Mathematics: How Disadvantaged Children in the US and South Africa Are Falling Behind
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The United States: A Tale of Two Systems

In the US, a country historically known as the "land of opportunity," the education system paints a different picture. US public schools are primarily funded through local property taxes, resulting in a disparity in resources for schools in affluent neighbourhoods compared to those in impoverished areas. This funding model has led to a system where students in wealthier areas have better access to advanced mathematics courses, smaller class sizes, and experienced teachers.

One notable example is the availability of Advanced Placement (AP) math courses; college-level classes that can help students earn college credits while still in high school. A study conducted by The Education Trust found that in 2017-2018, nearly two-thirds of high schools in high-poverty areas did not offer a single AP math course, compared to 18% of schools in low-poverty areas. This disparity extends beyond AP courses, with poorer schools often lacking access to advanced mathematics courses in general, such as calculus or trigonometry.

South Africa: The Legacy of Apartheid

The situation in South Africa is also concerning, with the long-lasting effects of apartheid continuing to impact the education system. During apartheid, the government purposefully underfunded black schools, and the legacy of this policy is still felt today, with black students from disadvantaged backgrounds far less likely to succeed in mathematics than their white and wealthier counterparts.

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For instance, in 2011, only 3.1% of black students achieved a pass in the mathematics national exams compared to 34.8% of white students. The education system remains segregated along socio-economic lines, with wealthier students attending former white schools with better resources and more experienced teachers, while poorer students are left with crumbling infrastructure and overcrowded classrooms.

The Problem of Teacher Quality and Training

Both the US and South Africa face challenges in terms of teacher quality and training in mathematics. In the US, a study found that teachers in high-poverty schools are less likely to have a degree in mathematics, have less experience teaching the subject, and are more likely to be teaching out of their field. These factors have been shown to negatively impact student achievement in mathematics.

Similarly, in South Africa, a study conducted by the Human Sciences Research Council found that only 39% of Grade 6 mathematics teachers had the minimum knowledge required to teach the subject. This lack of teacher expertise has been linked to low student performance in mathematics, further disadvantaging those from low-income backgrounds.

The Consequences of Elitism in Mathematics

The elitism in mathematics education has far-reaching consequences for both individuals and society. Students who fall behind in mathematics are less likely to attend college or pursue careers in fields such as science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). This not only limits their economic mobility but also exacerbates income inequality and perpetuates cycles of poverty.

At a societal level, a lack of access to quality mathematics education for poor students hinders national progress and innovation. As countries become increasingly reliant on technology and STEM fields, it is essential to develop a skilled and diverse workforce that can drive economic growth and compete globally.

Policy Recommendations

Addressing the elitism in mathematics education requires targeted policy interventions that prioritise equal access and opportunities for all students, particularly those from low-income backgrounds. Some recommendations include:

  1. Reform school funding models: Both the US and South Africa should consider reforming school funding models to ensure that resources are more equitably distributed. This could include increased federal or national funding for education, or a shift towards funding based on student needs rather than local property taxes.
  2. Improve teacher quality and training: Investing in teacher quality and training is crucial for improving mathematics outcomes for disadvantaged students. This may involve offering incentives for qualified mathematics teachers to work in high-poverty schools, providing ongoing professional development opportunities, and ensuring that teacher training programs adequately prepare educators to teach mathematics effectively.
  3. Expand access to advanced mathematics courses: Governments should prioritise making advanced mathematics courses available in high-poverty schools to ensure that all students have the opportunity to succeed in the subject. This could include funding for additional resources, such as textbooks and technology, as well as partnerships with universities or online learning platforms to expand course offerings.
  4. Implement targeted interventions: Policymakers should consider implementing targeted interventions, such as tutoring programmes, summer learning opportunities, or after-school enrichment programs, to support low-income students who are struggling in mathematics.
  5. Encourage collaboration and sharing of best practices: Facilitate collaboration between schools, districts, and provinces to share best practices and resources for teaching mathematics. This could include the development of networks or partnerships between high and low-performing schools, as well as the creation of online repositories for lesson plans, activities, and other teaching materials.


Elitism in mathematics education is a pressing issue that must be addressed to ensure equal opportunities for all students, regardless of their socio-economic background. By implementing targeted policy interventions and prioritizing access to quality mathematics education, countries like the US and South Africa can break the cycle of poverty, foster economic mobility, and promote national progress.

To learn more, check out the OECD Education Policy Perspectives

The OECD Directorate for Education and Skills helps countries compare their education policies and experiences, and learn from each other through large scale assessment and surveys and comparative policy analysis. This policy papers series presents analysis for policy makers, practitioners and researchers on a wide range of policy issues covered at OECD: from pre-primary to higher education, from policy design to implementation, from student performance and well-being, to teacher training and practices, to school resources.

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