Education

The Folly of ‘Woke’ Math

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Teaching that math is ‘racist’ will taint the field for everyone, including those who need it most.

Math proficiency is white supremacy, proclaims Deborah Lowenberg Ball, a mathematics professor and former dean of the University of Michigan School of Education.

In the latest episode of the EdFix Podcast, Ball complains that math is a “harbor for whiteness” and “the very nature of the knowledge and who’s produced it, and what has counted as mathematics is itself dominated by whiteness and racism.” She groans that considering math proficiency to be a sign of intelligence is “raced.” In response, host, Michel Feuer, dean of the George Washington University Graduate School of Education and Human Development, gushes, “Listening to you is the greatest positive reinforcement to be in this profession.”

Unsurprisingly, Ball’s solution included a plug for her consultancy, TeachingWorks, funded in part by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. TeachingWorks is no doubt ready to profit by assisting school districts to interrupt “patterns of racism.”

Ball’s views and Feuer’s obeisance sound like parody. Yet, this dangerous paradigm — that getting the right answer, using the right method, or believing some students are more capable than others is white supremacy — is strongly endorsed by educators, leading mathematics organizations, and policy-makers. Include, in the latter group, the Oregon and California Departments of Education. Much of the research and the dissemination of this twaddle is funded by the Gates Foundation, which last year spent $642 million for its U.S. program, including Pathways and other initiatives that focus on eliminating white supremacy from math.

The canard that math is racist has been around for a while. Campus Reform concisely summarized the thesis of a 2017 book by Rochelle Gutierrez, a professor at the University of Illinois, who asserts: “On many levels, mathematics itself operates as whiteness. Who gets credit for doing and developing mathematics, who is capable in mathematics, and who is seen as part of the mathematical community is generally viewed as white.” Gutierrez worries that algebra and geometry perpetuate privilege, fretting that “curricula emphasizing terms like Pythagorean theorem and pi perpetuate a perception that mathematics was largely developed by Greeks and other Europeans.”

Like Ball, Gutierrez complains that math perpetuates white privilege because society’s premium on math skills creates “unearned privilege” for math professors, who are disproportionately white. “Are we really that smart just because we do mathematics?” she asks, questioning why math professors receive more research grants than social studies or English professors.

Gutierrez overstates her concern about credit. Asian and Islamic contributions to math are properly respected, though Greeks and other Europeans played an outsized role in developing the math used today. It seems her objection is more about the paucity of “credit” for so-called marginalized minorities. In faulting facts for perpetuating privilege, Gutierrez falls in line with Ibram X. Kendi’s outcome determinative casuistry: If the outcome of an activity does not at least proportionately benefit blacks, then the activity is per se racist.

Gutierez’s and Ball’s views are gaining traction. As early as 2017, two of America’s leading mathematics organizations, the National Council of Supervisors of Mathematics and TODOS: Mathematics for All issued a joint statement criticizing an “unjust system of mathematics education” and demanding a social-justice approach, including reduced testing and ending classes for superior students.

Last September, Education Trust-West, an “advocate for educational justice,” announced its study and tool kit for math standards, “A Pathway to Equitable Math Instruction” — funded, of course, by the Gates Foundation. Aimed particularly at grades 6–8, this “Pathway” was developed through a partnership of California educators and “equity” organizations.

Trust-West’s parent organization, The Education Trust, was formed in 1997. Its president, John B. King Jr., was secretary of education in the Obama administration. His credentials are a testament to the ability of black children in America to succeed: B.A. from Harvard, M.A. and doctorate from Columbia, and J.D. from Yale. With his background of accomplishment, it is sad that True-West’s answer to improving math education is to eviscerate its purpose, messengers, and content.

The introduction to “Pathway” explains its purpose:

This tool provides teachers an opportunity to examine their actions, beliefs, and values around teaching mathematics. The framework for deconstructing racism in mathematics offers essential characteristics of antiracist math educators and critical approaches to dismantling white supremacy in math classrooms by making visible the toxic characteristics of white supremacy culture . . . with respect to math. Building on the framework, teachers engage with critical praxis in order to shift their instructional beliefs and practices towards antiracist math education. By centering antiracism, we model how to be antiracist math educators with accountability.

“Pathway” asks administrators to “examine programs and policies and how white supremacy impacts student outcomes (e.g., tracking, course selection, intervention rosters),” and to “hold teachers accountable for completing the activities [recommended by ‘Pathway’].”

“Pathway” makes clear what its authors think of math in the United States, stressing the importance of “dismantling white supremacy in math classrooms by making visible the toxic characteristics of white supremacy culture (Jones and Okun 2001; dismantling Racism 2016) with respect to math.”

The ideas, thoughts, beliefs, and actions “Pathway” characterizes as white supremacy include: a focus on getting the right answer; independent practice over teamwork (that is, the individual’s ability to learn and solve the problem); tracking (permitting gifted students to take advanced courses not available to less capable students); seeing mistakes as failure; control of the classroom by the teacher, as opposed to permitting students to set the agenda; teaching in a linear fashion; and rigor being taught through the difficulty of the problems.

Other examples of white supremacy in “Pathway” include worship of the written word, perfectionism, either/or thinking, and objectivity. “Pathway” objects that current teaching “allows the defensiveness of Western mathematics to prevail. . . . It also presupposes that ‘good’ math teaching is about a Eurocentric type of mathematics, devoid of cultural ways of being.”

The last observation is gobbledygook. If the authors of “Pathway” believe ending the enumerated practices accommodates the needs of black children, then they do not believe black children can learn math.

That conclusion is reinforced by one prescription offered by “Pathway”: to avoid “paternalism and powerhoarding,” the teacher should stop teaching math. Instead, the teacher should learn from students. Further, “good math” is not about good learning. It is about eliminating “inequity.” That is why tracking is intolerable. It allows better students to advance. If no one learns, the outcomes are equitable. Instead of using numbers to teach math, “Pathway” advocates that schools use numbers to motivate anti-racist discussions of social justice.

It would be one thing if the guidelines of “Pathway” wallowed in obscurity. But the opposite is happening. In July, the California Department of Education issued a Mathematics Framework. Repeatedly quoting from and confirming the conclusions and remedies in “Pathway” and citing a long list of progressive social-justice warriors as its sources, the Framework rejects “natural gifts and talents” and calls for de-emphasizing calculus and eliminating classes for gifted children in grades 6–12 to eliminate “inequity.” Chapters 1 and 2 explain that “equity influences all aspects of this document,” and direct teachers to use math for political discussions about “marginalized communities,” and move away from focusing on correct methods or answers.

The framework also reminds teachers that examining “issues of environmental and social justice” is a high priority for California’s education system. The state is committed to “equity,” which “extends throughout the framework.”

In the 58 pages of Chapter 9, “Supporting Equitable and Engaging Mathematics Instruction,” the framework lambasts educators for a “long history of inequitable access to rich learning” and calls for teachers to overcome “legacy practices” in “culturally relevant” ways including “attention to the impacts of unconscious bias on students’ experiences in the mathematics classroom.”

As a result of pushback from parents and educators, the California Education Department has delayed a final decision on the Mathematics Framework until 2022.

The fiction that seeking the correct method and answer in K–12 basic math is white supremacy, rather than people supremacy, is belied by common sense. In 1999, NASA lost its Mars Climate Orbiter because engineers failed to convert from the metric system to inches, feet, and pounds. During the Gulf War, an American Patriot Missile failed to track and intercept an incoming Iraqi Scud missile, which struck an American army barracks, killing 28 and injuring 99. A GAO report concluded the cause was an inaccurate calculation of the time. Each year, 7,000 to 9,000 Americans die from math errors in medication dosage. Math errors kill and cause substantial property damage and losses each year.

It is an undeniable truth that there are correct and incorrect answers in basic math.

There is no white math, or black math. There is only math. Americans, particularly our black and Hispanic students, are falling behind because, instead of finding better ways to teach, progressive educators debase math.

In the most recent Program for International Student Assessment rankings, the U.S. ranked 38th in math. National Association of Educational Progress math scores show long-term improvement, including by blacks and Hispanics, though progress largely stopped in 2009. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, in 2020, nearly four out of five black and Hispanic eighth graders were not proficient in math.

The progressives retort that tests and disparities in scores also are white supremacy, though they never quantify the “race premium” or explain performance by Asian Americans. There is race-neutral evidence that a poor high-school student who lacks access to coaching and AP courses likely will have the same college performance as a wealthy student whose SAT math score is 30 to 50 points higher. That is a measurable outcome with a clear remedy — adjust the scores for poor students. If and when a differential can be shown to be the result of skin pigmentation, the remedy would be similar.

Instead, advancing “equity” by ending the use of the SAT and ACT, as the University of California system did in May, or ending proficiency exams for high-school seniors, as in Oregon (see here and here), or simply disregarding test scores and pre-selecting outcomes by race, as many progressives demand, won’t help identify those who need help, or improve their education.

Black and Hispanic children should be doing better in math and the sciences. We need to find ways to achieve that result, not ways to hold back gifted children, destroy our ability to measure achievement, or delegitimize math.

The idiocy of having math teachers lead discussions on social justice instead of teaching black children how to do math will ensure that black children never receive the tools they need to succeed.

The only cause being truly advanced here is the cause of employment for progressive consultants. The sophistry of their cringe-inducing lexicon is dangerous. Those who claim the mantle of protector have become the oppressors.

Kenin M. Spivak, is founder and chairman of SMI Group LLC, an international consulting firm and investment bank, and a lifetime member of the National Association of Scholars. 

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