The Wrong Answer – How The New Racism Is Killing Math

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The Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) recently announced that it was eliminating accelerated math courses before the 11th grade in the name of “equity.”  The announcement was part of what is known as the Virginia Mathematics Pathways Initiative (VMPI), which is touted as an effort to revamp and somehow improve instruction in mathematics by “dumbing it down” and lowering standards.

At the heart of this decision is a doctrine pushed by an organization called the National Council of Supervisors of Mathematics (NCSM). The NCSM believes that the problem with student performance in mathematics in our schools is not the quality of the instruction or the methods used. It is that we track performance.

“Tracking is the practice of dividing students into separate classes for high-, average-, and low achievers.” In practice, these might be considered low or high tracks, or some other, similar categorization, and students might be placed into these tracks based on questionable methods using grades and placement exams, perceived ability through teacher recommendation, or non-academic expectations adults have for the students. Much of the research on tracking policies demonstrates the negative effects on certain subgroups of students by denying them access to rigorous coursework.

Yes, the problem is not that the kids can’t add or subtract. It is that we notice that and treat them accordingly. If only we put the kids who don’t know their multiplication tables in the same class with the boys and girls studying calculus it would all be good.

This is only the beginning of the lunacy. It gets much, much worse.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is bankrolling a program of instruction, which expressly states that math itself is racist.

“White supremacy culture infiltrates math classrooms in everyday teacher actions. Coupled with the beliefs that underlie these actions, they perpetuate educational harm on Black, Latinx, and multilingual students, denying them full access to the world of mathematics.”

The materials provided for their program of instruction identify a host of specific practices, which are racist and should be avoided.

“White supremacy culture shows up in math classrooms when… Grading practices are focused on lack of knowledge. Instead… Grades are traditionally indicative of what students can’t do rather than what they can do, reinforcing perfectionism.”

“White supremacy culture shows up in math classrooms when… Students are required to “show their work” in only one way. Instead… Math teachers ask students to show work so that teachers know what students are thinking, but that can center the teacher’s need to understand rather than student learning. Teachers should seek to understand individual student perspectives and focus on students showing their work in ways that help students learn how to process information.”

“White supremacy culture shows up in math classrooms when… The focus is only on getting the “right” answer. Instead… The concept of mathematics being purely objective is unequivocally false, and teaching it is even much less so. Upholding the idea that there are always right and wrong answers perpetuate objectivity as well as fear of open conflict. “

“White supremacy culture shows up in math classrooms when… Teachers are teachers and students are learners. Instead… Unique to mathematics is the idea that new learning comes from the teacher. Even when learning is connected to previous knowledge and experiences, the idea is often that teachers provide the learning and are in charge of disseminating new information. This reinforces the ideas of paternalism and power hoarding.”

“White supremacy culture shows up in math classrooms when… Participation structures reinforce dominant ways of being. Instead… Classrooms are often microcosms of the world around us and reinforce dominant (or white) ways of being. For example, small groups of students receive the teacher’s attention throughout instruction and a few students are typically called on to participate in class discussions, reinforcing notions of perfectionism. The patterns of students who fall into those categories often mirror societal norms. Another common participation structure is pairing students as helper and helped. This reinforces paternalism and other power structures that identify students as either being good or bad at math (also either/or thinking). Also, requiring students to raise their hand before speaking can reinforce paternalism and power hoarding, in addition to breaking the process of thinking, learning, and communicating.”

Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s “Equitable Math” program

What could go wrong?

Once educators have mastered all the intricacies of this new, kinder, gentler approach to learning they will in the words of the authors of this madness, be well on their way to understanding “the ways that math is used to uphold capitalist, imperialist, and racist views.”

The 2016 movie “Hidden Figures” celebrated the work of African-American women who worked for NASA during the space race with the Soviet Union and did by hand the laborious and critical work of calculating flight trajectories. NASA’s own biography of perhaps the most famous of these women, Katherine Johnson, reads in part.

“In 1962, as NASA prepared for the orbital mission of John Glenn, Johnson was called upon to do the work that she would become most known for. The complexity of the orbital flight had required the construction of a worldwide communications network, linking tracking stations around the world to IBM computers in Washington, Cape Canaveral in Florida, and Bermuda. The computers had been programmed with the orbital equations that would control the trajectory of the capsule in Glenn’s ‘Friendship 7’ mission from liftoff to splashdown, but the astronauts were wary of putting their lives in the care of the electronic calculating machines, which were prone to hiccups and blackouts. As a part of the preflight checklist, Glenn asked engineers to “get the girl” – Johnson – to run the same numbers through the same equations that had been programmed into the computer, but by hand, on her desktop mechanical calculating machine. “If she says they’re good,’” Katherine Johnson remembers the astronaut saying, “then I’m ready to go.” Glenn’s flight was a success and marked a turning point in the competition between the United States and the Soviet Union in space.”

With his life on the line, John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth wanted a black woman to tell him the numbers were right. Neither he nor Johnson apparently knew that math was racist.

It would be easy to dismiss silliness like the proposed new methods for teaching mathematics as simply more political correctness and nonsense. We would be wrong to do so.

Math is not racist. This new curriculum is. At its heart, it is based on the assumption that minority kids, by which the authors mean principally black children, are simply incapable of learning in the way other kids do. The paternalism veritably drips from passages that suggest traditional instruction be replaced by “Community circles or storytelling circles, incorporating dance, music, song, call and response, and other cultural ways of communicating.”

This is not a “new” approach – many years ago a similar line of thinking was rolled out for teaching reading. Teaching children phonics was too “conservative” and just “rote” learning. School districts across the country that eliminated this “conservative” learning style had droves of children who could not read or spell.

The kids who can’t read, can’t write, and can’t add in our schools don’t need patronizing balderdash. They need teachers. They need to learn. They need to be educated and prepared to succeed in life.

The “new direction” in mathematics provides none of that. For our children, it is the wrong answer.

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