“Mathematics education in the United States was initially structured . . . to prepare privileged, young, white men for entrance into elite colleges.” “Teachers need to work consciously to counter racialized or gendered ideas about mathematics achievement.” “A ‘color-blind’ [teaching] approach allows such systemic inequities to continue.”
And so begins California’s proposed 2021 mathematics teaching framework. According to the proposal’s authors, the roots of systemic US racism and sexism have invaded mathematics, and this is the primary reason why so many California students are far behind in grade-level math proficiency. And if this is to be fixed, then anti-racist and anti-sexist training must be implemented in math education.
How far behind are California kids? Only 10 percent of Black students and just 15 percent of Hispanic students are proficient at or above their grade-level standard. And the proficiency bar is not particularly high. For example, in ninth grade, students are expected to understand that if you take the square root of four, which is two, and then multiply two by itself, that you wind up back with the number four. Take a breath and think about the implications when few ninth-grade students understand the concept of exponents, and you will agree that we should be very concerned about math literacy in California.
This deficiency has to be racism, right? Well, no. Students of Asian descent are by far the highest-achieving math performers in the state, with nearly two-thirds at or above grade-level standards. These students are also significantly outperforming Whites, less than half of whom are proficient at math. These statistics would seem to reject the idea that mathematics remains a “White males only” club.
But the introductory chapter never cites the superlative math performance of students of Asian descent. Perhaps because it doesn’t fit the narrative. Perhaps because some who are sympathetic to race-based explanations, including San Francisco Board of Education member Allison Collins, believe that Asian Americans use “White supremacist thinking to assimilate and get ahead,” so they may as well be lumped together with Whites.
But whatever the reason for this omission, you would not know after reading the proposal’s first chapter that the alleged “math for privileged White males” teaching premise is called into question by the fact that Asian-American students are by far the highest performers. Nor would you know just how badly California’s public education system is failing Black and Hispanic students. If the proposal did report these awful proficiency statistics, the idea that failure rates as high as 90 percent could be cured by waving an anti-racist wand would be implausible.
The proposal’s goal, which is to improve learning for those who are struggling, is what is needed, though this has been needed for decades. There are a few good ideas, but those that are good are all well-established teaching practices that good teachers already apply in their classrooms. These include (1) engaging students and making sure they are active participants; (2) helping teachers think outside the box and facilitate learning by using aspects of an individual’s interests and background to help those having a difficult time; and (3) be positive and supportive, understanding that every student has untapped potential while recognizing that the teacher is the bridge between confusion and light.
But the program doesn’t stop with these laudable goals and good ideas. You see, the real purpose of the program is very different. Its race-centric foundation explicitly rejects the idea that high-achieving children merit accelerated programs, implicitly suggesting that there are only small differences in learning potential across students and that those who are struggling will shine once the “White male” is taken out of math.
No more programs or different classes for gifted children and others. All kids are together and are taught the same material. You get the feeling that the term “gifted” is to be banished. Welcome to socialist math, where fixing the actual problems that plague California’s educational system are not identified. And this is why horribly deficient educational outcomes for many children will continue if this proposal is adopted as it is written. As is always the case with “one-size-fits-all” policies, the beauty of who we are as individuals disappears. Poof. Gone.
The proposal cites research studies to validate its idea that gifted classes should not be offered, and that those who struggle can achieve at levels close to the same as those met by students formerly identified as gifted.
Some of the studies are filled with so many blatant errors that no legitimate conclusions can be drawn. The worst of these studies are those that focus on race-based criticisms of math instruction. One begins by noting, “This article frames mathematics education within a broader racial context to show how it functions along the same dominant racial ideologies within society.”
The study compiles data showing that Whites take more math in high school and have higher salaries ten years after they graduate from high school than Blacks. What conclusions can be drawn from this? Nothing more than that Whites tend to take more math than Blacks and tend to have higher salaries ten years after they graduate. But the author ascribes all the salary differences between Blacks and Whites as causally due to differences in access to math education. The author treats the data as if it were derived from a randomized sample, in which White students and other races were randomly given different levels of math courses. The author also omits explanations of salary differences based on the dozens of other factors impacting earning ability that have nothing to do with how much math a student took in high school. These are important, elementary errors, and studies such as this should not be used to justify changing educational policy for six million or more students every year.
The most relevant study showed that 15 students who were struggling with mathematics improved considerably with private tutoring of about an hour a day for eight weeks. Well, sure. Parents around the globe hire tutors because they are effective. This study has nothing to say about “whiteness” in mathematics or that math classes for gifted students should be eliminated. And by the way, traditional mathematics is taught in China, which has some of the highest-achieving math students in the world. So much for “White male” oppressive math instruction.
Every student should have access to quality instruction. What is needed to help struggling students is simply better math instruction. This includes supporting teachers who need to understand math at a deeper level by providing them with continuing education and mentorship. This solution can’t be overemphasized, because many teachers today likely need this additional training. A report on teacher quality shows that only those teachers specializing in math and science scored higher than the average student attending college on math SAT scores. Another important investment is hiring more specialists in math and science. These specialists can mentor teachers who struggle in these teaching areas and can also teach more advanced classes.
And what about eliminating accelerated classes for high achievers? This could be incredibly damaging, significantly diminishing the number and quality of our future engineers, biologists, inventors, software developers—the list goes on—leaving our nation behind in innovation and growth. Just imagine how much value the next Jeff Bezos (Amazon) or the next Elon Musk (Tesla) could create. We need more of these transformative individuals, not fewer.
Students will be worse off if we choose to devote our education spending on anti-racism training rather than investing in our teachers so that they can become math teaching stars. Following ideology and identity politics will disproportionately hurt those students whom California’s latest proposal is supposed to help.