Math, yes, math, as in adding, subtracting, multiplying, and dividing, is racist now too

The woke army marches into classrooms with a new guide on “Deconstructing Racism in Mathematics Instruction,” urging teachers to pursue an “ethnomathematics” to return math to its proper “cultural ways of being.”  Once again, a ridiculous 22-year old paper casts a long shadow…

“These common practices that perpetuate white supremacy culture create and sustain institutional and systemic barriers to equity for Black, Latinx, and Multilingual students. In order to dismantle these barriers, we must identify what it means to be an antiracist math educator.”  And so begins “Deconstructing Racism in Mathematics Instruction,” a new guide from organization Equitable Math, whatever that group may be.

What are these atrocious common practices you ask?

They run the gamut from the obvious like “the focus is on getting the right answer” and “students are tracked (into courses/pathways within the classroom)” to the mundane, “teachers enculturated in the USA teach mathematics the way they learned it” and “math is taught in a linear fashion.”  They even include a few things pretty much essential to teaching basic math, “state standards guide learning in the classroom” and “procedural fluency is preferred over conceptual knowledge.”  Apparently, there is also the horror of students being “required to show their work.”

Exactly how these common practices are a product of white supremacy is left completely unexplained.  The author’s of the guide, Sonia Michelle Cintron, Dani Wadlington, and Andre ChenFeng, do not feel the need to show their work either, apparently.  What is, supposedly, explained in great detail, complete with journal sections for teachers to keep track of their progress, is how to overcome these “systemic barriers” and properly teach math to students of color.

How can this desirable state be achieved?

The first step is for teachers to “engage” because “white supremacy culture shows up in math classrooms when…expectations are not met.”  Expectations for performance are an “example of either/or thinking…If students don’t show the characteristics of what I think is a good student, then that student is bad.  This thinking creates a meritocracy in the classroom.”

To avoid meritocracies, we should “provide students with the opportunity to give feedback to teachers.”  Students can, in fact, provide feedback on their experience every day, here’s a verbal example, “Fist to five, how well do you understand what we talked about today? Fist to five, how well did I teach this today?”  On a side note, I’m not sure what fist to five means, one to five?  Zero to five? 

Amazingly, even if the student fails after doing this, we should “Challenge the notion that if a student did not pass one course they will not be ‘successful’ in the next course.”  Do you know any student that failed pre-algebra but kicked ass in algebra?  Me neither, but we must also be careful to avoid equating “language acquisition” with “mathematical proficiency.”  You see, “A common misconception is that students who are negotiating language are unable to communicate their mathematical knowledge. This reinforces quantity over quality when teachers reduce math teaching to things that are more easily measurable, like literal math.”

Literal math is another new term, invented perhaps for this paper.  Does anyone you know do non-literal math?  I am aware of advanced geometries studied by mathematicians that allow for non-literal conclusions, but I know no one in real life that actually does such a thing.  Either way, we can overcome the hurdle of the literalness of mathematics by treating “mathematics as a language that everyone is learning while authentically centering students home languages.”

This process includes “color-coding ideas, learning vocabulary in students languages, visual and kinesthetic learning,” and “representations of learning without words.”  In addition to teachers, the whole mathematics department can get involved by engaging “with a language acquisition professional development that is contextualized in mathematical understanding.”

In addition to lacking their own mathematical language, delivered via color-coded smoke signals I presume, another challenge is that educators “often assess and test skills rather than concepts, solidifying notions that skills are more important.”  This occurs because “math teachers prepare students for what is more easily measurable, reinforcing both quantity over quality and sense of urgency.”

This happens because many educators believe students need to exhibit “basic, or computational skills before they can apply the mathematics.”  As in, they need to actually show they can do the work.  Unfortunately, this idea “refinorces objectivity by requiring linear processing.”  The solution to this problem is to “begin with conceptual knowledge, and build the skills along the way.”  As a verbal example, they cite, “At the end of the unit, we are going to have a carnival celebration where we determine whether the games are fair or not using probability. Let’s think about some games that we play. Are you likely to win?”

Left completely unsaid is how one can assess the fairness of the games without being able to compute the probability, which of course requires “computational skills,” literally.  

Antiracist math educators are also encouraged to embrace something known as “ethnomathematics” and incorporate into their classrooms.  What that actually is, of course, is left entirely unsaid, except it’s white supremacy otherwise because you want to avoid presupposing that “‘good’ math teaching is about a Eurocentric type of mathematics, devoid of cultural ways of being.”

You see culture, or at least their ways of being, is now a big part of mathematics because it “reinforces the idea that there is only one right way to do math.”  You need to read this whole paragraph to believe it:

“The history of mathematics, its colonization, and what is deemed as ‘acceptable’ knowledge is rich and complex, therefore, the way that mathematics is taught in the United States needs to be interrogated because it currently centers Western, Eurocentric ways of processing and knowing information. When students are required to learn in this way, they either have to unlearn their learned native traditions to meet teacher expectations, or they are deprived of learning math in their ancestral history. For teachers, teaching the way they learned also reinforces the right to comfort for teachers because to conform is easier than to challenge themselves to teach math differently. “

Yes, the authors are really trying to claim that students can have difficulty learning mathematics because they have to “unlearn” their native mathematical traditions and they’re being denied their “ancestral history.”  Does anyone truly believe that poorly performing students are really awesome at doing math in some completely different manner at home?

Either way, the way to address this cultural atrocity is to teach them that the Mayans had a concept for “zero” before Europe.  Really? It’s certainly an interesting fact, as are many other aspects of the history of mathematics in general, but I find it hard to believe it’s going to help a student learn the quadratic equation.  Nor do I think there are a large percentage of Ancient Mayans studying in US schools that might be confused or insulted by the way we use zero today.

Not to be outdone, they also recommend teaching math outside of the traditional base-10, apparently because the Yorubo of Nigeria used base-20.  Of course, it never occurs to the authors that the modern world standardized on the Arabic number system using base-10 because it’s the easiest to learn and use, what with the 1’s, 10’s, 100’s, 1,000’s columns, etc.  Teaching in base-2, binary, or base-20 as they recommend would be extraordinarily challenging to say the least.  In base-20, “10” is “20.”  Good luck explaining that, much less actually doing math in it!

Ultimately, the guide finally gets to the crux of the matter and what I take to be their real concern:  Rigor is expressed only with difficulty.  Once again, I have to quote the full paragraph to really appreciate it:

“Too often in math, we limit the definition of rigor to difficulty, rather than its full complexity including thoroughness; exhaustiveness; interdisciplinary; and balancing conceptual understanding, procedural skills and fluency, and application. This allows math teachers to shy away from complex problems and tasks and instead streamline teaching like we are spoon-feeding, in fear that students can’t do the work—and reinforcing right to comfort and quantity over quality.

Their solution to this conundrum is, amazingly, to start with more complex problems.  The verbal example they provide is “If we wanted to build a rocket, what are all the things we might need to know before we get started? Along the way, we decided that we want the rocket to reach the moon. What do we need to consider now?”

Where to even begin?  First, let’s be thankful the original rocket designers didn’t have such distrust of rigor.  Students can’t even start to answer such a complex question in any meaningful way without significant baseline skills, many of which will be well beyond the reach of a 6-8 grader, if not most adults.  In addition to basic arithmetic, you need an understanding of algebra, calculus, and physics.  I assure you, these do not come easy, nor does Newton’s third law of motion care about your ethnic background.

Second, let’s acknowledge that mathematics is fundamentally about rigor.  There are no shortcuts to doing the hard work; the numbers do not lie, you produce them, or you don’t.  I say this as someone who had a natural propensity for the field, but lacked the discipline to really do it myself.  I understand that most people find it boring to pore over numbers all day because I think the same myself, but that’s ultimately the job.

The truth is:  Their recommendation is essentially not to do the job at all.  Sure, the guide includes an awful lot of high-minded rhetoric about “designing a culturally sustaining math space” and “culturally relevant pedagogy specific to math content,” but when you get down to it the teacher is also asked to “Consider what grades really mean to you, and articulate a plan that is consistent with those values.”

Teachers are also expected to “understand individual student perspectives and focus on students showing their work in ways that help students learn how to process information.”   This is to be achieved with “Number talks, where students have to engage with mental mathematics not limited to computations.”  For example, “If you were working with a fellow mathematician who was absent this day, what might you tell them to help them learn it?”

How else are we to interpret this as results don’t matter, feelings do?  At no point are the woke educators insisting the students actually do the math.  Instead, they’re going to spend a lot of time talking about it, drawing pictures of it, culturally contexting it, and deciding how they feel about it.

Unfortunately, math doesn’t work that way.  It’s one of the few human endeavors that doesn’t care who you are, what background you are from, or what you think about anything.  The numbers are the numbers, you know them or you don’t.  It is that simple and it’s ultimate the students who will suffer, cut off from the skills that will open up doors to the highest paying careers solely so the educators can feel good about how they are dismantling systemic racism or something.

Astute readers may also have noticed some of the language used in the teaching guide, phrases like “either/or thinking,” “quantity over quality,” and “sense of urgency” that were italicized.  This is from the original document.  Where have we heard these before?

Once again, the antiracists are relying on the work of Tema Okun, who published a paper on “white supremacy culture” back in 1999.  That paper concluded, without evidence, that white supremacy is perpetuated by: Perfectionism, sense of urgency, defensiveness, quantity over quality, worship of the written word, only one right way, paternalism, either/or thinking, power hoarding, fear of open conflict, individualism, i’m the only one, progress is bigger, more, objectivity, and right to comfort.

Yes, a completely unsubstantiated paper with no evidence to back up any of the claims is now coming to your child’s classroom 22 years later.  Though a white woman herself, with no qualifications that I can find, Ms Okun is actually referenced in the opening pages of the guide.  She might as well be a modern day oracle, pronouncing truth from on high, as if there was no dispute over whether “either/or thinking” is a hallmark of white supremacy.

Alas, the end result will be to dismantle students’ math skills rather than racism.  In another world, this would be funny if it wasn’t so frightening.

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