Racist math, progressive problem- solving, and a nation at risk (Nov. 6)

by J. Pharoah Doss, For New Pittsburgh Courier

In 1983, a report was published called: A Nation At Risk. The report revealed SAT scores dropped significantly between 1963 and 1980. Even worse, American students were severely outperformed by students from other industrialized nations.

It was a national embarrassment.

The report launched an avalanche of educational reform. Educators on the right stressed the need to remedy the international disparities by improving performance across the board, while their counterparts prioritized eliminating internal disparities which required reducing racism.

In 1990, an editor of The American School Board Journal stated, the effects of society’s racism are spilling over into the schools. The editor, along with the educational establishment, promoted the necessity of adding multicultural programs to public school curriculums. It was believed multicultural programs would reduce intergroup conflict by making groups aware of, and sensitive to, racial, ethnic, and cultural differences and make groups more accepting of those differences. During the last decade of the 20th century, it was believed public schools were society’s best hope of battling racism.

Meanwhile, the nation was still at risk.

In 1993, Economist Thomas Sowell stated, as race relations have worsened in the wake of policies designed to make them better, there has been no rethinking of the original assumption on which these policies were based, and the real question is whether multiculturalism delivers on that promise—or whether it, in fact, makes racism worse.

Sowell was ignored. How could multiculturalism make racism worse?

In 2008, educators across the country released a joint statement on the 25th anniversary of “A Nation At Risk.” They said, “Our schools now serve children with a more challenging array of needs than ever before. Yet virtually every group of those children—White, Black, Latino, Asian, poor, rich—is achieving at higher levels in most subjects at most grade levels than they were 25 years ago. In some cases, the achievement gaps which have plagued this country throughout our history are beginning to narrow…But while we are doing better, it’s still not good enough. The rest of the world is outpacing us. Despite our gains, U.S. high school students now rank in the bottom quarter among industrialized nations in mathematics and in the bottom half in science. Our students are fleeing the very disciplines that are the foundation of the knowledge economy.”

In other words, the nation was still at risk.

In 2017, the Brookings Institute published a report called: Race gaps in SAT scores highlight inequality and hinder upward mobility. The mean score on the math section for all test-takers was 511 out of 800, the average scores for Blacks (428) and Latinos (457) were significantly below Whites (534) and Asians (598).

Back in the 1990s when there were no signs of improvement, Sowell stated the educators on the left responded in three ways.

1). Blame past racism continuing in the present.

2). Blame institutional racism.

3). Blame the conservative mood of the times.

In 2017, a fourth response was introduced—blame the subject. Professor Rochelle Gutierrez argued, “Mathematics—itself—operates as Whiteness.” Gutierrez is encouraging aspiring math teachers to develop a sense of “political knowledge for teaching” to combat this problem.

But what kind of political knowledge is needed to teach mathematics?

A recent headline said: Seattle public schools will start teaching that math is oppressive. Seattle’s school district has proposed a new “social justice infused” curriculum that enables teachers to introduce ethnic studies into the classroom through mathematics. (The curriculum is not mandatory.) The curriculum outlines discussions teachers should incorporate into their math classes. Teachers should explore math’s roots in the ancient histories of people and empires of color, teachers should explain how math and science was used to oppress and marginalize people of color, and teachers should encourage students to recognize the mathematical practices and contributions of their own communities and look at how math has been used to free people from oppression. Gutierrez said, “We haven’t focused enough on identity or systems of power. Students should be able to see themselves in the curriculum, recognize math as a tool for making their lives better, and question what math is, and the purpose of math.”

Meanwhile, the nation is still at risk.


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