California education officials are considering applying a social justice paradigm to teaching K-12 mathematics that would erase “White supremacy” from the subject and eliminate gifted classes for students.
Proponents of new math say the way the subject currently is taught is suffused with White supremacy. They say it handicaps some minority students by insisting on what they consider racist concepts — such as arriving at correct answers.
Some academics and conservative thinkers fear that forcing critical race theory into math classes would mark a further retreat from America’s preeminent global position in mathematics and sciences. An influx of foreign scholars has long maintained that advantage.
“Ill-conceived [diversity, equity and inclusion] policies, often informed by CRT, and the declining standards of K-12 math education feed each other in a vicious circle, which is in time going to affect the entire mathematics profession and, more broadly, all STEM disciplines,” three mathematicians from Princeton University, New York University and the University of California, Irvine, wrote in a recent piece for the online magazine Persuasion.
California’s Instructional Quality Commission is considering introducing into classrooms across the state a modified version of “A Pathway to Equitable Math Instruction,” a curriculum developed by the online tool kit EquitableMath.org that aims to remove cultural bias from education.
The social justice curriculum is “an integrated approach to mathematics that centers Black, LatinX and Multilingual students in grades 6-8 [and] addresses barriers to math equity,” the organization’s mission statement says.
While doing so, it offers “opportunities for ongoing self-reflection as they seek to develop an anti-racist math practice.” Teachers in particular are “asked to reflect on their own biases to transform their instructional practice.”
California is not the first state to consider applying critical race theory to math. School districts in Oregon, Washington and Virginia are also experimenting with “anti-racist math,” but California’s 6.1 million K-12 students in public and charter schools make an enormous laboratory for the change.
“This is not a California-only story, although California is always out front on the exciting new trends and fads,” said Williamson Evers, a senior fellow at the libertarian Independent Institute in Oakland. “But they want to inject environmental and social justice into the curriculum, and they would discourage all acceleration until the 11th grade.”
California officials say “Pathway” authors are modifying the blueprint, which is one reason it has temporarily put aside the curriculum for classrooms across the state.
At a recent meeting, however, members of the Instructional Quality Commission expressed hope that “Pathway” would be incorporated into instructional material for teachers and perhaps resurrected when the state board of education meets in November.
Some scholars say the idea that math supports or is based on White supremacy ignores the fact that mathematics is a universal language discovered and developed by diverse cultures over millennia.
“It is absurd to accuse mathematics as being ‘racist,’” said William Happer, a professor of physics emeritus at Princeton University. “We use Indian numerals that come to us through the Arabs. There are still lots of distinguished mathematicians in India who speak the same worldwide mathematical language as mathematicians in North America, Europe, the Arab world, India, China, Japan, Africa, South America, etc.
“Greek geometry, much of it borrowed from Egypt and Mesopotamia, is still one of the most sublime human achievements,” Mr. Happer said.
Jo Boaler, a math education professor at the Stanford Graduate School of Education, is one of the drafters of the California proposal, which draws heavily on “A Pathway to Equitable Math Instruction.”
Rather than focus on race, Ms. Boaler said, people should look at the emphasis on “data science.” The new pedagogy helps students apply the math they learn to real-life issues such as fighting viruses, wildfires and personal finance, she said.
“This has prompted a lot of media attention — much of which has distorted the intent and content of the proposed framework,” Ms. Boaler told The Washington Times.
Rather than eradicate math programs for gifted students, the proposal would allow students who may have been shunted aside too early to have a chance to learn more math, she said.
“One of the big issues addressed in the new framework is the way students are systematically excluded from higher-level content through tracking,” Ms. Boaler said. “Such methods may have made sense in the era of fixed brain thinking, but we now know that our brains are growing and changing all the time. In the new framework, we are working to address the tracking problem, sharing other approaches, including examples of schools and districts that are working to keep access to higher-level mathematics open to all students as long as possible.”
The math classroom hierarchy has been a problem, too, Ms. Boaler said.
“We are not saying ‘math is racist,’ as some seem to be claiming. We are saying that math has been taught in a way that has led to many inequities over the years,” she said.
By shifting the emphasis to “equity,” education reformers spoil the discipline, many scholars say.
“We need to get racial politics out of the equation before it’s too late,” mathematicians Sergiu Klainerman of Princeton, Svetlana Jitomirskaya of the University of California, Irvine, and Percy Deift of New York University said in Persuasion.
They note that many of the people driving the change are not mathematicians but education school faculties who develop “teacher preparation programs” that “teach very little substantive mathematics.”
One of the worst developments is “the bizarre doctrine” of “anti-racist mathematics,” Mr. Deift, Mr. Klainerman and Ms. Jitomirskaya said.
What’s more, Californians who have contacted the Instructional Quality Commission overwhelmingly oppose the introduction of critical race theory into mathematics teaching.
“I fundamentally disagree with the notion that math is permeated by white supremacy, and [that] showing your work is an example of white supremacy,” wrote Alan Fisher, a parent and a physicist at Stanford University. “This is wrong at its core. Math is a fundamental science; it has no ideology and is the same worldwide.”
• James Varney can be reached at email@example.com.
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