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Politically correct math                                                                                     Print this essay

Posted at: Mar/10/2021 : Posted by: mel

Related Category: Education, Watching America,

It’s 2021 and the era of deflecting blame. When something is not going well we blame government intervention, or the lack of government protections, or a host of other groups and entities. If there is disparity in outcome, it must be discrimination and racism. Apparently this mindset has now been applied as a rationalization for success and failure at math education. This is exemplified by the Oregon Department of Education (ODE) which recently encouraged teachers to register for training to discourage “ethnomathematics.” It was bound to happen, they are blaming the racial divide that is statistically associated with student success or failure in math on a “white supremacy culture” in the math classroom.

Ethnomathematics is a broad term that effectively seeks to define a connection between math and a particular culture or population. The ODE’s newsletter speaks of “dismantling racism in mathematics.” Their toolkit includes a list of ways that a “white supremacy culture” allegedly has entered the classroom including a “focus on getting the right answer” and students being “required to show their work.” Maybe most alarming is the “concept of mathematics being purely objective is unequivocally false.”

As a child I struggled with writing. We were being told to diagram our sentences explaining all the parts and pieces. First person, third person, adjective, adverb, present participial; I struggled at a young age to write and be able to explain or demonstrate all the parts of communication. There was also the subjective nature of just how just “good” or “bad” my writing really was. Honestly, most of those terms still elude me, but I am not making excuses as there is no doubt that my writing was really bad then, and only marginally better now.

Math classes were almost fun for me. The material was first and foremost “objective” which was a comfortable place for me after a morning of embarrassing myself at the blackboard failing to explain the parts of a sentence. Being able to learn a specific procedure and apply it over and over to solve math problems with success was comfortable. Being required to show the working steps was also meaningful. When I did not have the right answer, the teacher would circle the specific step in my work where I went astray creating my error. The rest of my family all struggled at math while doing better at writing. Clearly, not everyone is wired the same and regardless of opportunity will thrive in distinctly different ways.

I am not a mathematician, though I have had to take a great deal of math during my education as an engineer. I have always viewed math as a tool in the problem solving toolkit. The right tool used in the right way can definitely help in creating a pretty cool outcome. But math is objective and not subjective, right answers matter. Whether planning your budget before buying a car, or determining the allowable loads on a truss being designed for a stadium roof. Obviously, getting your math wrong in either situation can have a catastrophic outcome. The ODE’s toolkit encourages teachers to “come up with at least two answers that might solve this problem.” I am really confused how that can possibly work!

I understand the value of encouraging students to explain why they got the answer they got. There can be multiple ways to get to the right answer. When students show their steps the teacher can identify where they made a wrong assumption or which procedural step went awry. In fairness, this means our math teachers need to be smart enough to solve a problem in different ways which unfortunately is not always the case. Still, math is Objective and not Subjective, and teaching anything else is foolish.

By being objective, math would also seem to be agnostic with respect to politics and social issues. Apparently I am wrong on this. Within the ODE’s material it instructs educator to “identify and challenge the ways that math is used to uphold capitalist, imperialist, and racist views.” Who knew!!

I am not a teacher, but I understand that no matter how hard you try, not everyone will do well in a math class. In a similar way, not everyone can learn to play an instrument, excel in sports or write poetry. Unfortunately, there are many teachers who are not really qualified to teach math; instead they regurgitate the material provided to them in a predefined outline. If a student attempts to solve a problem in an alternate manner, this could well exceed the scope of their capability. Nevertheless, science and math classes are always perceived as more difficult because there are specific right answers.

At a national level we speak all the time about staying competitive at business, science, banking, etc. If we stop expecting correct answers in math, we are doing great damage to the future of our society.

As for the notion that math is fundamentally racist, I find the notion ludicrous. The history of math is a global exercise in which nearly every culture has contributed since roughly 3000 BC. Egyptians, Greeks and a host of other all contributed to modern math theory. The Chinese gave us negative numbers. The Mayan’s appear to be the first to use a specific symbol for the value “zero.” The term “algebra” is actually derived from Arabic. Interestingly, the numbers we most commonly use today are considered “Hindu-Arabic.” Rather than representing “white supremacy,” the evolution of mathematics has been a global and multi-cultural race always seeking to find the right answer for the next new and challenging problem.

After a journey of 286 days, in September of 1999 the Mars Climate Orbiter crashed into the red planet rather than entering a pre-planned orbit. Analysis showed this was not a hardware failure, instead it was a math error. Right answers do matter.

On the other hand, there are clearly challenges in math education that need to be addressed. Dan Battey, an Associate Professor of math at the Rutgers University Graduate School of Education studied how whiteness impacts education on minority groups. According to Battey, there are ways in which math teachers “are perpetuating racism in the schools” which is shaping the expectations and kinds of mathematics that students experience.

An example of whiteness explored in the paper is how the relentless drumbeat from researchers about racial differences in math achievement is linked to racially differential treatment in math classrooms. Basically, this concept states that the consistent hearing by teachers about underperforming black and Latino students creates a predisposition to expect these same students to underachieve. This is reinforced by the notion that overtaxed teachers then make the subconscious choice to help the white and Asian students more often because they will benefit more from that assistance. This is the spiral of predetermining who does and does not have an innate ability and then perpetuating that outcome. If true, this is not an indication that our current math education discriminates, but this is an indication of bias on the part of the educators.

As the theory goes, with white and Asian students consistently at the top of math-achievement rankings—and black and other nonwhite students continuously trailing behind—teachers start to expect worse performance from certain students, start to teach lower content, and start to use lower-level math instructional practices. By contrast, white and Asian students are given the benefit of the doubt and automatically afforded the opportunity to do more sophisticated and substantive mathematics. If true, that is not the “whiteness” of the math, it is bias on the part of the math educator.

In our media intensive society we talk a lot about what is “trending.” Effectively, that means that whatever is a popular subject gets a lot of notice and then recycled, retweeted, or whatever the meaningful term is. A quick Google search of “whiteness in mathematics” will bring up over 16 million possible hits. A search of “racism in mathematics” will also bring up over 10 million hits. Yet exploring the top listings in each found that they all referenced the same 3-4 studies. If ever there was an example of trending…this appears to be it.

Not that the subject is not important, but we seem to be seeking a lot of social change based on a relatively small amount of data. Additionally, all this really sounds like the proverbial “throwing out the baby with the bathwater.” If math educators are showing bias in the classroom, why focus on reinventing math education, you already know the teachers and their perceived attitude are the source of the problem. Complacency, stress, exhaustion, under-qualified; there are a lot of reasons for a math teacher to fail to support all their students equally.

In the general education portion of the curriculum at many public high schools there has been a move to “dumb down” the material. The intent has been to increase graduation rates. It is difficult to say if graduation rates are up, but freshman college students are less and less prepared for the rigors of their new environment. Making math subjective and not requiring students to show their work would effectively be dumbing down that material.

Like so many well intentioned social constructs that are intended to help people, ethnomathematics and associating math with race, ethnicity and perpetuating the evils of capitalism is really just looking for the easy target to blame. Even for the brightest of people, math is not easy. For most people who succeed at math, they must practice it a lot; that means lots of homework and a supportive environment to do homework. Teachers need to be able to see the work to ensure a problem is being dissected properly, or identify where the student went array. As a nation we tend to marginalize teachers rather than ensuring we have the most capable people teaching a specific subject. While there are plenty of capable math teachers, we are doing our young students a disservice too often in who we designate to teach a math class.

One of the fields requiring a lot of math skills is that of being a statistician. Any good statistician will warn against confusing correlation with causation. It is wrong to directly relate ethnicity and math performance as simple cause and effect, the reality is that it is a correlation and not a causation. It may be easier to blame the ethnic divide of math success on the material, but it is most likely teachers and home environments. Many of the complex problems in our future will require skilled minds and great math to be resolved. Maybe the people writing these papers proposing that math is racist ought to return for a refresher in middle school math because they seem to be getting the wrong answer.

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