Statistical Literacy is too Important to Allow Gatekeeping

Nate Bowling is the 2016 Washington State Teacher of the Year, National Teacher of Year Finalist, and currently teaches at the American Community School of Abu Dhabi. He hosts the Nerd Farmer podcast and blogs about teaching at

Within the teaching profession, people dwell in silos. Coaches hang out together, the music teachers swap stories among themselves, administrators commiserate about struggling students (and teachers). In this case, I have been invited into the Statistics silo. I recognize that I am an outsider in your discipline but I want to ask you all for a professional favor.

My name is Nate Bowling. I am a teacher from the Seattle Area, Tacoma to be exact, and I am a creature of the humanities silo. I host a podcast called Nerd Farmer where I talk about civics, sociology, and history. I write and speak about social studies instruction and educational justice. After thirteen years of teaching in the US, I am currently living overseas teaching at an American embassy school in Abu Dhabi, one of the seven Emirates that makes up the UAE. I have been a teacher long enough to see the ebbs and flows of various policy initiatives and spats. And in my old age, I have become an advocate for multiple literacies: civic, financial, media, tech, and I think most important for this audience, statistical.

I came into the profession in the mid-2000s at or near the peak of the “every student should go to a four year college” trend. Much of that conversation was really a coded fight about higher level mathematics classes. At times, admittedly, I was an advocate of the meme, but it has thankfully waned over time. The impulse was correct, but the policy reality was messy. In hindsight, what I really thought but didn’t always effectively convey is the following: I believe every student should get a solid, meaningful footing in mathematics, especially statistics and be prepared to go to a university if they choose to. The future is going to be more data rich than our already complex present. Students who lack statistical literacy will be at a disadvantage in future adulthood and professional endeavors. If you agree with the preceding statements, welcome to the club. Now here is the ask: I encourage you to examine the enrollment practices in Statistics classes at your schools.

I have my issues with the College Board, but I also know that a ton of amazing teaching and learning happens in AP classes. But consistently, across the US, low income students and students of color are under-represented in AP courses of all types, but especially in STEM courses.

If I may make this a bit personal, I am a fellow AP teacher. I teach AP Government & Politics and AP Comparative Government. But I never took any AP, International Baccalaureate, or honors classes when I was in high school. There were many reasons why: gatekeeping by adults, low expectations for Black students, and my lack of comfort as Black adolescent in a nearly all white space. In many ways and at many schools the situation is the same for students today.

Alisa Martine McKinnie explains the grim situation well in her paper Leveling the Playing Field:

“Current trends in minority representation are moving backwards instead of forward... Solorzano and Ornelas found that in schools with a high enrollment in AP classes and a high enrollment of minority students, the minority students were still underrepresented, creating a “school within schools” phenomenon. Students who do not take AP classes “are at a distinct disadvantage” for acceptance into college; therefore, schools are not providing all students with the same curriculum and are, in essence, setting up these students for failure.”

She's right and we have to do better.

Sometimes the practices we have in AP enrollment are holdovers from the past and we don’t interrogate them. How are students identified or tracked for AP Stats at your school? Do we sell the course to students who might otherwise be reluctant? Are there needless prerequisites for your courses? Do students have to opt-in rather than opt-out of AP classes? There are some schools where in order to be in an AP or IB class you have to literally apply or go through an interview. Whether intentional or not, these hurdles are a form of gatekeeping that keep out many low-income students and students of color. We need to tear these gates down. If you teach at a school where the AP classes are not as diverse as the rest of the school, your school is likely gatekeeping students like me who could thrive in your classes if given the opportunity and support.

The pandemic and the recent election in the US have shown us all there is a desperate need for statistical literacy. If you want more evidence, open a browser or the Twitter app and search the phrase “I trust my immune system,” then take a long, deep breath as you read. Seriously, nowhere is the lack of statistical literacy in the US more readily on display than on social media and especially when it comes to the topic of vaccines. This has long-term implications for our country.

We need to diversify our AP courses. We need to remove arbitrary barriers to enrollment. We need to seek out talented or high potential students and drag them kicking and screaming, if need be into our courses. That’s my ask of you today and if administrators won’t initiate these kinds of changes, we as practitioners need to be the change.

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