California’s new math proposal, which blends current ideas in social justice and antiracist thought with mathematics instruction, is a culturally driven agenda that will almost certainly fail those whom it is intended to help. The proposal, whose curriculum focuses on “social inequities” using “trauma-informed pedagogies,” provides no compelling arguments for why this approach will be better than traditional math education.

It also falsely blames racism as the reason why math proficiency levels for California students are low. And most important, the foundation of ethnomathematics—the elimination of objectivity—is the antithesis of standard scientific principles. This will damage the ability of students to understand scientific inquiry and reduce the number of new scientists who will be able to advance our scientific knowledge base.  

You probably think that mathematics should be immune from cultural, social, and political influences, but it is not. “Ethnomathematics” is being adopted or considered in many schools, particularly on the West Coast. Oregon’s Department of Education is promoting training using the “Equitable Math” toolkit, which argues that “White supremacy manifests itself in the focus on finding the right answer.” 

Don’t we all want the “right answer,” particularly when the having the correct answer can mean the difference between life and death? How else would we trust the engineers who have designed bridges and dams to withstand a certain load or seismic force? We have seen the enormous destruction and tragedy that occurs in poor countries when inadequately constructed infrastructure and buildings collapse during natural disasters. When it comes to applying mathematics to everyday life, the “right answer”—an answer that is colorblind—saves thousands of lives.

But finding the “right answer” is now in jeopardy as more schools transition to ethnomathematics. “The concept of mathematics being purely objective is unequivocally false, and teaching it is even much less so,” the document for the Equitable Math toolkit reads. “Upholding the idea that there are always right and wrong answers perpetuate objectivity as well as fear of open conflict.”

The goal of ethnomath is eliminating objectivity, based on the view students are somehow worse off if they make mistakes along their mathematics journey to finding the correct answer. For example, the scientific principle of friction explains why moving an object using wheels is more efficient than dragging it. Is a student better served if they are patted on the head and told that dragging an object is just as good as using wheels? Really?

You can see that this perspective is incredibly dangerous. Mathematics, and its applications in every other scientific field, is focused on objectively discovering order and rigorously understanding an otherwise chaotic world. Virtually every scientific finding and application, whether characterizing gravitational force or testing whether a drug or vaccine is more effective than a placebo, is based on the objective principles of mathematics and probability theory.  Newton, Galileo, and Einstein never stopped to think that math was subjective. The world we live in would be much worse off had they done this.

California’s new math curriculum seems focused on developing students’ sociopolitical consciousness and teaching social justice as much as it is on mathematics, maybe more. And it rejects the idea that some students are more mathematically inclined than others (“We reject ideas of natural gifts and talents”); believes that teachers must treat students differently based on their race (“Active efforts in mathematics teaching are required to counter the cultural forces that perpetuate inequities”); and wants to do away with accelerated classes for the highest aptitude students.

I wish those who wrote the new proposed curriculum knew about David Blackwell and Katherine Johnson, two of the most important mathematicians of the 20th century.

Blackwell’s contributions include a complex mathematical discovery that provides the foundation of nearly all economic models that analyze how economies evolve over long periods of time. His “contraction mapping theorem” made it possible for us to evaluate important public policy questions, including the long-run fiscal health of governments given their debt positions and their taxing capacity, and how inflation affects economic growth.

Johnson received the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her work in calculating orbital trajectories and emergency escape paths for the space program in the 1960s. Her work was critical in helping John Glenn make the first American flight orbiting the Earth in 1962.

Both Blackwell and Johnson were Black Americans, both grew up in the 1920s and 1930s, when racism was much more severe than today, and both were accelerated substantially in math training when they were young. And both may have turned away from mathematics had they been bored by not being accelerated to a level commensurate with their learning ability. How sad that would have been.

But what about the view that racism more broadly impacts math achievement? According to Seattle educators: “Closing ‘Achievement/Opportunity’ gaps is a Western way of thinking about education. It’s linear and views students as lacking something and needing to be turned into some ideal, which is defined by white supremacy.”

Really? Math achievement by students of Asian descent destroys the view that White supremacy and racism is the reason why traditional mathematics teaching is to be blamed. Students of Asian descent are by far the most proficient among all demographic groups at mathematics, with nearly 2/3 of Asian students proficient at grade level, compared to less than 50 percent for Whites, and about 15-20 percent for Black and Hispanic students.

There is a simple solution to this problem. Many Black and Hispanic students are at schools staffed by teachers who do not have the math background to be effective math teachers. The solution is to hire more math specialists and provide additional training to those teachers who need it. Many Chinese students have much higher math achievement than American students, and China teaches traditional math. The big difference? China’s math teachers are experts in their field and know how to communicate mathematics to all students.

How to solve California’s decades-old math failure is straightforward, but California’s new math proposal runs away from this common-sense reform. Why? Because it does not align with the self-interest of the education’s system political agenda. It is a cover-up, one that protects the system, while punishing the most vulnerable students.

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