Seattle’s public-school district has proposed a new math curriculum that would teach its students all about how math has been “appropriated” — and how it “continues to be used to oppress and marginalize people and communities.”
A draft of the curriculum, which was covered in an article in Education Week, would teach students how to “explain how math and technology and/or science are connected and how technology and/or science have (sic) been and continues to be used to oppress and marginalize people and communities of color,” as well as to “identify and teach others about mathematicians* of color in their various communities: schools, neighborhoods, places of worship, businesses, etc.”
Education Week reports:
If adopted, its ideas will be included in existing math classes as part of the district’s broader effort to infuse ethnic studies into all subjects across the K-12 spectrum. Tracy Castro-Gill, Seattle’s ethnic studies director, said her team hopes to have frameworks completed in all subjects by June for board approval.
If the frameworks are approved, teachers would be expected to incorporate those ideas and questions into the math they teach beginning next fall, Castro-Gill said. No districtwide—or mandated—math/ethnic studies curriculum is planned, but groups of teachers are working with representatives of local community organizations to write instructional units for teachers to use if they wish, she said.
As strange as it may sound, this proposed curriculum is not the first time that someone has argued for teaching math in this way. In fact, in 2017, an online course developed by Teach for America — titled “Teaching Social Justice Through Secondary Mathematics” — instructed how to teach their students how “math has been used as a dehumanizing tool.” Also in 2017, a University of Illinois math-education professor detailed what she saw as some of the more racist aspects of math, claiming that “mathematics itself operates as Whiteness.”
I wrote columns about both of these stories that year — and, at the time, most people likely saw them simply as examples of “fringe” beliefs, confined to only super-progressive, ultra-woke circles. With the announcement of this Seattle proposal, however, we can no longer reassure ourselves that this is the case. Now, the social-justice approach to teaching math has officially entered the mainstream (and taxpayer-funded!) arena.
This concerns me, and, believe it or not, that’s actually not because I despise “people and communities of color.” In fact, it’s quite the opposite: It’s because this approach to teaching math will only end up harming the very groups it claims it champions. As The American Conservative’s Rod Dreher notes:
The young people who are going to learn real math are those whose parents can afford to put them in private schools. The public school kids of all races are going to get dumber and dumber.
Guess what? Minority students are far more likely to attend public school than whites. In fact, according to Private School Review, “[t]he average percent of minority students in private schools is approximately 28 percent.”
In other words? The minority students, the members of the very groups that this curriculum presumably aims to aid, are actually going to be learning less math than they would have without it — because they will be spending some of that class time learning about how math’s racism has hurt them. Ironically, one of the curriculum’s goals is to teach students how to “critique systems of power that deny access to mathematical knowledge to people and communities of color,” and yet, that’s exactly what the district itself would be doing with it.
The historical contributions of communities of color are important, and students should study them. A better place to study them, though, would (quite obviously) be a history class, not a mathematics one. Mathematics classes should be for mathematics lessons; this is especially important considering the fact that math is exactly where American students (of all races) struggle compared to students in other countries. In fact, according to a Pew Research study from 2017, American students ranked 38th out of 71 countries in the subject. If we want to fix this, we need to focus more on math, instead of looking for ways to teach less of it in the very classes where our students are supposed to be learning it.
The bottom line is: If Seattle’s school district really wants to help minority students excel in mathematics, the last thing it should be doing is proposing a math curriculum that would teach less of it in the schools that they’re most likely to attend.