The Capitalists Who Sell Ethnic Studies

Tuesday, March 2, 2021

After circulating two widely criticized drafts of an ethnic studies curriculum, the California Department of Education must now determine whether to accept a third widely criticized draft this month. The common denominator across all three drafts is that they are based on “critical ethnic studies,” which holds that capitalism is a form of power and oppression and is related to imperialism, White supremacy, and racism. The critical ethnic studies foundation in this program is the principal reason why more than 80 groups and organizations continue to object to one curricular draft after another.

Yet for all of capitalism’s alleged faults, those who sell critical ethnic studies and its cousin, critical race theory, are using the capitalist model, which they criticize, quite well in their own enterprises and organizations. The San Mateo school district has hired an education consulting business to offer two-hour online webinars at $350 per participant to help teachers self-reflect on their journey to becoming anti-racist and to help them “dismantle racist mathematics education.”

Participants receive a toolkit, which lists ways that “white supremacy culture” infiltrates math classrooms. This culture is allegedly problematic because it focuses on getting the “right” answer and on students needing to show their work. The toolkit notes that 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.” Welcome to the world of ethnomathematics.

No right answer? Hmm . . . well, let’s hope that the engineers of tomorrow, those designing future generations of airplanes, cars, bridges, buildings, and dams, know how to get the right answers. Better to have a bridge remain standing after an earthquake and save lives, even if focusing on the right answer does possibly “perpetuate fear of open conflict,” yes?

The toolkit also offers guidelines, including how to “identify and challenge the ways that math is used to uphold capitalist, imperialist, and racist views.” You mean, like accounting and auditing of businesses? As in the accounting and auditing services that are performed—hopefully getting the right answers—within their own organizations?

Those who advocate for changing math instruction along these lines must believe that it will lead to better learning outcomes for students. There is no question that California’s students need to understand math more deeply, with only 29 percent testing at or above proficiency levels. Sixty-three percent of Asian students are at or above proficiency levels, but this falls to 47 percent for Whites, 15 percent for Hispanic students, and 10 percent for Black students. Clearly, something needs to be done with math instruction for the kids who are struggling. Is ethnomathematics the answer?

The countries with the highest-performing math programs teach math traditionally. Students from Shanghai, China, often place first in international math assessments of students across countries, and the Shanghai kids learn math the old-fashioned way.  As in, there is a correct answer, and with marks taken off an exam if proper notation is not used. The United Kingdom recently brought 60 math instructors over from Shanghai to teach.

What is different about Shanghai math? Most math teachers in Shanghai tend to be math specialists, who only teach mathematics. This allows Shanghai students to receive broader and deeper exposures to mathematics than with teachers who don’t have an advanced mathematics background. The Shanghai system, which often is taught in classes of up to 50 students in China, focuses on students mastering concepts so that they can show the entire class how to solve a particular problem. Integrating all students in the process is a key part of instruction. These features of Shanghai math may be best practices that we can copy.

There is no quick fix to help students who struggle with math, but improving math aptitude almost certainly requires additional training for teachers. The investments we need to make in teachers are in their individual abilities to understand math, appreciate math, and know how to apply math to everyday problems in interesting ways in order to be effective teachers. 

I suspect that the return on this investment will be much higher than paying for training to eliminate White culture from the math classroom. We spend about $20,000 per child in our K–12 system, including pensions (deferred compensation) and capitalized spending from school bonds. With a 20-student classroom, that is a budget of $400,000 per year, which should be enough to provide funding for this training.

The California Department of Education has less than one month to decide on approving a third draft of an ethnic studies curriculum that remains flawed. The department was granted a one-year extension last year because the first two drafts were unacceptable. It should request another extension now in order to produce a high-quality curriculum that will receive much broader buy-in from Californians.

This will require the curriculum to be based on a broader set of principles than critical ethnic studies and critical race theory. This should be easier to do now, as the critical ethnic studies scholars who were advising the curriculum development have resigned, citing “white supremacist, conservative, multiculturalists,” including the Alliance for Constructive Ethnic Studies and Educators for Excellence in Ethnic Studies for objecting to the three drafts that have been written and interfering with the process.

These organizations are not just saying “no” to what has been developed, they are working to create inclusive, positive, ethnic studies curricula that would enhance student learning and help students achieve the legislature’s original goal, which was to help all students understand and appreciate the remarkably diverse world we all share. They should be heard.