Guest Post: Politics Driving Math Classes

by Robert Pondiscio
September 5th, 2011

Today’s post is by Laurie H. Rogers, a member of the executive committee for Where’s the Math? and author of “Betrayed: How the Education Establishment Has Betrayed America and What You Can Do About It.”  She blogs at Betrayed (http://betrayed-whyeducationisfailing.blogspot.com/) where this post also appears.

Several days ago, someone sent me an article on “teaching math for social justice.” I actually hit my desk while reading it, narrowly missing the cat. I shouldn’t read things like that first thing in the morning. It raises my blood pressure and gets the next 12 hours off to a bad start.

In the article, teaching math for social justice isn’t about math or justice; it’s about pursuing a narrow political agenda in the classroom, through the children. Math is relegated to the wings, used as a vehicle through which the agenda is delivered.

The article was in a 2010 special edition of the National Council for Teachers of Mathematics’ Journal for Research in Mathematics Education (JRME). This issue is dedicated to “equity” in math instruction, “with a focus on power and identity.” After years of advocacy, I shouldn’t be surprised by what comes out of the NCTM, but this special edition still was a cold shock.

The NCTM, you’ll recall, is responsible for the current incarnation of “fuzzy” math, born in the depths of hell in the 1980s. Many NCTM presidents and officers have their name on, and fingers in, today’s “reform” math curricula (including the curricula still sucking the lifeblood out of children in Spokane). Unhappily for this author, some now are involved in federal initiatives related to the Common Core State Standards and assessment consortia.

After decades of abject failure of the fuzzy approach, you’d think the NCTM would reject anything that further detracts from learning math. Instead, this trend to teach math through “equity and social justice” is gathering steam, fostered by social activists, self-interested groups like the NCTM – and well-meaning people who don’t realize the intent. For social activists, the agenda isn’t about “equity of opportunity” or justice under the law. It’s political, sociological activism, designed to move students in a specific political direction based on a particular world view. This activism, masquerading as math, is inappropriate and unhelpful.

Many states have policies or laws prohibiting schools from using public funds, facilities or venues for political purposes. Therefore, this activism is ethically, even legally questionable. It’s also a betrayal of trust for schools and teachers to push a particular political point of view on captive, vulnerable, attentive children (paid for by unaware taxpayers). And, there are practical issues of time and resources. This activist agenda is unlikely to help children academically.

The children need academics in order to be successful in their postsecondary life. It bears repeating: Academics are the schools’ mission. Many in education disagree with that statement, but their disagreement doesn’t change its truth. The time and resources spent on any political agenda takes away from academics. Those who see the agenda as more important won’t mind, but parents would … if they knew about it.

Let’s examine that special edition of the JRME.

In the editorial The sociopolitical turn in mathematics education, Rochelle Gutiérrez says that, over a decade, math education researchers incorporated sociocultural concepts into their work. But now, those with “a long history of addressing anti-racism and social justice issues in mathematics have moved beyond this sociocultural view to espouse sociopolitical concepts and theories, highlighting identity and power at play.”

Gutiérrez warns against “focusing on discourse to the point where mathematics disappears,” but she fails to acknowledge the alarming fact that it’s already largely happened.

The abstract for Margaret Walshaw’s Post-structuralism and ethical practical action: Issues of identity and power says her article explains “how mathematical identifications are tied to the social organization of power. An analysis of 2 everyday instances is provided to capture the oppressive conditions in which ordinary people involved in mathematics are engaged.”

(I’m feeling a bit “oppressed” myself, actually. All of the power to fix the math program in Spokane rests with people who refuse to do it.)

In Learning to teach mathematics for social justice: Negotiating social justice and mathematical goals, the article that caused me to startle the cat, Tonya Gau Bartell says math classes should examine concepts such as prisons vs. education, and institutionalized racism. Students could “use mathematics to expose an injustice, that minimum wage is not a living wage, and would brainstorm possible actions they could take to affect (sic) change.”

(It’s a blending of sociology, activism and math … minus the math.)

The article that does ring true is David W. Stinson’s Negotiating the “‘White Male Math Myth”: African American male students and success in school mathematics. Weighed down by a nearly unintelligible abstract, it nevertheless reaches the heart of the issue. Teachers should find ways to use students’ frame of reference to drive the lessons. It’s how you reach a student. Reaching a student is how you teach the student, and teaching all students what they need to know is how you achieve equity of opportunity, and justice for all. But who believes that?

Activists prefer to frame math lessons around their politics, values and world view. In doing so, they interfere with the very process that helps students succeed. They also place squat, fat barriers between children and their unknowing parents. Already, mathematics has been politicized, socialized and stupefied into near drivel. We don’t have a generation ready to take over the reins of the country. It’s much, much worse out there than you think.

When the agenda is the priority, student outcomes become less important. Public dissent is seen as irrelevant, and it falls on deaf ears. Look at the mission statement and goals for Spokane Public Schools. College readiness isn’t mentioned. It’s all about “aligning,” “developing” and “empowering.” We aren’t talking about the same things. “The children are failing.” Irrelevant. “They need substantial remedial math in college.” Irrelevant. “They have almost no math skills to speak of.” Irrelevant. “Listen to me! I have something to tell you.” Irrelevant. Administrators and board directors actually have told me I have nothing to tell them about what my child needs.

What is relevant to them? They claim without proof that students are gaining “deeper conceptual understanding” in math through “real-world application.” For one thing, their “real world” is largely foreign to the children. For another, you can’t have “deeper conceptual understanding” without academic knowledge. But that, too, is seen as irrelevant. They don’t view math as a useful skill, a field unto itself that requires focus and a logical, linear progression of concepts. To them, math is a prop, grabbed on the fly to frame and illustrate their sociological concerns.

They refuse to give students the academic skills they need to be successful, productive citizens and not stricken with poverty. Who is oppressing whom? Yeah, yeah, I know. Irrelevant.

Google the term “educators for social justice” and see how equity, social justice, anti-oppression, environmentalism, anti-American “imperialism,” the disdain and devaluing of military service, pro-“immigrant reform” (i.e. amnesty), selective law obeying, moral relativism and anti-capitalism are increasingly embraced as core education themes and embedded throughout the nation’s K-12 curriculum. Young students must ponder weighty social issues while not being taught enough usable math. Grammar has been replaced with self-absorbed and generally useless exploration. Many history and social studies classes focus on social change and transformation, rather than on names of state capitols or the “rich white men” who signed the U.S. Constitution.

Notice the research focus in the profiles of master’s and doctoral students in the math education program at the University of Washington. “Progressive pedagogy”; how “identity, status, and equity play into success in mathematics”; “equity issues, professional learning communities, and literacy instruction in mathematics classrooms”; “a complex-instruction mathematics classroom through relational pedagogy”; and “examining the Eurocentric nature of mainstream mathematics—its segregated image, content, and pedagogy.” Where is the mathematics?

On the Web site for Teachers 4 Social Justice, the mission is to “provide opportunities for self-transformation, leadership, and community building to educators in order to affect (sic) meaningful change in the classroom, school, community and society.”

Whose definition of “meaningful change” holds sway? (And does no one know the difference between “affect” and “effect”?)

The group Rethinking Schools asks, “How do we bring the fight to protect and transform public schools into our classrooms? How do we connect our classrooms to the struggles in the streets?” An article on the site is titled Teaching budget cuts to third graders. Assisted by editor Bill Bigelow, the group published Rethinking Mathematics: Teaching Social Justice by the Numbers – a collection of articles showing “how to weave social-justice principles throughout the math curriculum, and how to integrate social-justice math into other curricular areas as well.”

Bigelow also wrote the article Patriotism Makes Kids Stupid for Pledging Allegiance: The Politics of Patriotism in America’s Schools. This 2007 book showcases “educators who refuse to toe the new ‘patriotic’ line.” (Also included is commentary from Bill Ayers, former member of the radical Weather Underground, who reportedly told the The New York Times in 2001, “I don’t regret setting bombs…I feel we didn’t do enough.”)

Rethinking Schools is sponsoring the Oct. 1st 4th Annual Northwest Conference on Teaching for Social Justice in Seattle. Please read the conference agenda. In its Equity Library, Spokane carries five books edited by Bill Bigelow.

Meanwhile, the Teaching for Change Web site says it “provides teachers and parents with the tools to transform schools into centers of justice where students learn to read, write and change the world.” Teaching for Change is affiliated with the Zinn Education Project, in which activist Howard Zinn encourages students to write about “unsung heroes,” including Elaine Brown, a former leader of the Black Panthers; Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, a longtime communist; and Leonard Peltier, who was convicted of murder (and is currently incarcerated).

Zinn provides materials that focus on the “oppressed,” without offering much in counterbalance. He offers a list of like-minded organizations, such as the New York Collective of Radical Educators, which tells teachers to advocate for full amnesty for those who are in the country illegally, and to “proactively” help students avoid military service.

This is just a snippet of the politics flooding K-12 education at the expense of academics. Spokane says “social justice is at the heart of our instructional core.” The Bronx has a school devoted to social justice, as do Brooklyn and Chicago. There are others; more are coming. Project-based learning, reform math and constructivism typically drive the social-activist agenda.

This agenda is not about the children. Few in leadership seem focused on academics or inclined to speak up. Parents get little help or truth from media, districts, principals, school boards, governors, legislators, policy-makers, education service districts, publishers, state or federal education agencies, teachers unions, or many “grass-roots” groups that are well-connected, well-funded supporters of the agenda. Frightened for their job, most teachers also remain silent.

On Aug. 27, in the face of ridiculously high college remedial rates, low levels of skills in math and grammar, and persistent community dissent, former Spokane superintendent Gary Livingston claimed without statistical data or support that local schools are just fine. He said what’s really needed is less criticism and more community involvement … (i.e., more of our money).

But, nationwide, $670 billion from all sources was spent for just one year of K-12 education. Despite their persistent complaints of ongoing budget “cuts,” poor things, it will again be more this year. How much was spent on academics? How much on the agenda?

We don’t have to accept it. Students need schools to focus on content knowledge and skills. Any school that refuses to do that, in the name of equity and social justice, is engaging in neither. Many in leadership supplement the program for their own children, or they remove their own children from public schools. (Not that they’ll tell you.) My family left public education this year because of the political agenda. It disrespects our values and presents incorrect, biased and narrow views of history and society. We left because academics aren’t respected. Children struggle with reform math, whereupon they’re blamed and called “the low group.” We left because the district leadership obstinately refuses to tell the truth, change direction, or be accountable for their failure. We left because their allegiance is not to the people; it’s to themselves, to each other, and to the agenda.

If you want academics in schools rather than politics, you’ll have to find a way to make it happen. They show little sign of caring about what parents want and children need.

29 Comments »

  1. While I have no animals near to startle, I hope I didn’t wake up my neighbors with my expletives while reading this. This is indeed the cancer that is spreading through education, and as a math educator if I sense this disease is creeping closer to my school, I will fight it with every ounce of energy in my spirit, fiber in my body, and thought in my mind.
    What’s even more evil about this insidious strategy is their targeting low-income schools to accomplish it, schools where you suspect parent involvement-engagement would be minimal, thus the resistance you’d face from parents being minimal. What these faux-educators fail to realize is they are fueling the very budget crisis our urban schools face as those parents who recognize this shallow education for what it is do as your parents did and take them out of public schools and seek out alternatives. When parents send their children to my class they expect their child to be able to add, subtract, multiply, divide, and use math better than when they started; no more, no less. When the child is empowered as such they can CHOOSE how to use their talents versus me trying to TELL THEM where or how to use their talents.
    I’m almost at the point where if an advocate for this madness were to speak to me face to face, they’ll get more than my two cents….

    Comment by Peter Ford — September 5, 2011 @ 11:25 am

  2. Are these people still really the “educational establishment?”

    Comment by Tom Hoffman — September 5, 2011 @ 11:26 am

  3. It’s fascinating how the “know-nothings” seem to know nothing. The politics of math go back to Pythagoras, not just the 1980′s, and the cultural context of math – and science – transcend “content areas,” because, largely, they dictate those areas. We didn’t need to know marginal returns until they were thrust upon us, nor did we need to know actual numbers. The newest cognitive psychology measures how pre-verbal children know quantities and logarithmic relationships before they learn integers, which are largely a learned function of formal “content-based” mathematics, and have only a tangential – and also highly consequential – relationship to the real world. So it’s “good to know numbers” but our instinct is to know the relationships of quantities rather than the numbers themselves. (For example, the difference between 1 and 2 is 1, yet the difference between 9 and 8 is … 1/9th and/or 1. Such differences are central to mathematics as we feel them, and, conversely and quite differently, as we know them.)

    Any argument whatsoever over politics in schools is…ultimately…itself political, and, while it’s fine to dislike those “liberal” or “progressive” people because they are “different,” it is utter sanctimony to pretend that they are more political than you in advocating for a form of curriculum. And it’s wise to leave such sanctimony to sacristies rather than schools.

    Comment by Joe Beckmann — September 5, 2011 @ 11:37 am

  4. Laurie, I agree wholeheartedly with your impassioned plea for schools to “focus on content knowledge and skills,” and agree that ideology needs to be kept out of the classroom–most especially out of math. However, I believe that we do a disservice to children if we delegate academics as the sole mission of our public schools. We must acknowledge–explicitly–that children must also be taught social skills and have their emotional needs met so that the non-academic skills requisite to success (self-control, character, etc) are not ignored. I argue this point more fully here: http://gothamschools.org/2011/07/14/curriculum-part-ii-the-hidden-curriculum/

    Comment by Mark — September 5, 2011 @ 11:44 am

  5. Using a nebulous term like “social justice” these indoctrinators (thet are not educators) are able to snea their political agenda into the classroom. It will require constant vigilance to identify and root out this toxic infestation from our schools. How and why did the educational mainstream let these radicals into positions of power?

    Comment by Snarkitect — September 5, 2011 @ 12:13 pm

  6. Mr. Beckmann’s nutshell = shoot the messenger + namecalling.
    Apparently he has a “zero tolerance” policy for curriculum battling on the premises.

    Fred Strine

    Comment by Fred Strine — September 5, 2011 @ 2:35 pm

  7. Despite the behavior of our unions, there are plenty of us working teachers who are outraged by this kind of shameless activism in the schools. Many of us do our jobs despite what our leadership says, not because of it, and we would gladly speak up against the establishment more often if only our personal livelihood weren’t on the line every time we opened our mouths in protest.

    I suggest a new form of academic tenure for K-12 teachers, not to protect bad teaching, but to at least guarantee a teacher’s right to openly challenge policy without fear of reprisal. Believe me, retaliation is alive and well in American public education—and some of these very same “social justice” advocates aren’t above using it themselves. Ironic, no?

    Comment by James O'Keeffe — September 5, 2011 @ 5:38 pm

  8. Sometimes the goals of elites matter. Curiously, sometimes they don’t. I just tossed those horrible, lightweight texts on social action in Ed School. Without verification, I think they serve as an inoculation against the silliness.

    Comment by Dennis Ashendorf — September 5, 2011 @ 7:58 pm

  9. Um, isn’t Howard Zinn getting on in years? He was born in 1922. That said, I don’t think this curriculum sounds suitable for children. Maybe adult math literacy.

    Comment by Harold — September 5, 2011 @ 11:18 pm

  10. Schools in the US can’t decide whether to teach science or religion, mathematics or social justice. This stuff didn’t simply fall from the sky. Someone had to orchestrate this movement. WHO is responsible for the insanity? WHO???

    Come in Student of History and/or Government Bureaucrat. Enlighten the audience. Is it NCTM, Teachers 4 Social Justice, Rethinking Schools, or a combination thereof (along with other groups)? Beyond that, how do they get away with it? Who in their right mind could sanction or condone such absurdity?

    Comment by Paul Hoss — September 6, 2011 @ 6:26 am

  11. That Robert would allow Ms. Rogers’ writing to be posted under his name shows that he is nothing more than an 18th century, fascist-reactionary, ultraconservative, cultural imperialist, far right-wing, Koch brothers controlled Neanderthal (I’m showing off my fluency with all the leftist buzzwords; I am clearly qualified to write editorials for the New York Times and to be granted tenure at any college in America).

    Seriously, as someone who takes the liberal position on several political issues and who has voted 98% Democratic for 25 years, these blatant attempts at political indoctrination make my blood boil. In proper context, I’m all for exposing kids to various viewpoints. Actually, the biggest problem for most high school and college students is that their knowledge base for political issues and history is way too shallow to allow them to have informed opinions about anything.

    My kids have been in Core Knowledge charter schools for seven years. When I mention to people in conversation or on education blogs that my kids attend a charter school, there is frequently an assumption that I am a hardcore religious right-winger who hates traditional public schools. Anyone who knows me knows that assumption isn’t anywhere close to being true.

    Over the last few months there has been vigorous debate on the CK blog about charter schools and the opposition to charters on the part of some erstwhile CK curriculum supporters. Of course traditional public schools can have a great curriculum like CK; some do now and do a great job with it. It isn’t necessary to be a charter school to provide effective education.

    But do you see why so many of us are passionate about the continued existence of good charter schools, when the prevailing ethos in so many traditional public schools is like that described by Ms. Rogers?

    Comment by John Webster — September 6, 2011 @ 12:49 pm

  12. @John. I prefer “cultural hegemonist” to “cultural imperialist,” if you please.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — September 6, 2011 @ 12:54 pm

  13. Why is it that if you support Core Knowledge and doubt that the use of iPads will improve learning it is assumed you have a love affair with Sarah Palin? How did this ever happen? How did us liberals that think content is important let it happen? I am saddened.

    Matt

    Comment by Matt — September 6, 2011 @ 1:24 pm

  14. Really interesting question, Matt. I think it has to do with the fact the E.D. Hirsch’s Cultural Literacy came out at the height of the 1980s culture wars and was embraced by political conservatives including Bill Bennett. Therefore it was assumed that Hirsch is a conservative. He’s not.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — September 6, 2011 @ 1:27 pm

  15. I agree that the combo of social justice and math is silly and I agree that public schools should mostly be focusing on teaching academics (though I also agree with Mark above that there is other learning that should happen in public schools).

    That being said, I thought this post was supposed to mostly be about math education. It seems mostly to be a rant against progressive politics. Examples of conservative politics “flooding” K-12 public education at the expense of academics (for example: teaching militarism, creationism, that slavery didn’t cause the Civil War, and that sex should only happen during marriage) are conveniently lacking.

    Comment by Rachel Levy — September 6, 2011 @ 7:33 pm

  16. Ms. Levy, your use of the word “conveniently” implies that I swung the article deliberately in a particular political direction. Considering the topic of my article, that would have been ironic, for sure.

    I don’t want ANY political activism in the schools. I have friends and allies in multiple political camps. Your assumption is interesting, though.

    I described the political trends that I see. You said militarism and creationism are “flooding” public education, but I don’t see that.

    I’m curious to know your definition of militarism. I don’t know of any public schools that push actual “militarism” on hapless children. I could be wrong — perhaps you could offer references. Public schools do tend to observe Veterans Day and Memorial Day, but that seems to be more a matter of respect, rather than militarism.

    Creationism vs. evolution has been an issue in a few districts, not really a “flood” and perhaps not even a strictly “conservative” issue. Again, I’m happy to be corrected, if you have some references to share.

    Many experts on the Civil War do argue that slavery didn’t cause the war, that the cause was a matter of states’ rights (in part over state decisions about slavery). That isn’t just semantics. Perhaps you could connect (with references) the anti-slavery-as-cause argument with it being a strictly conservative view, and then show how it flooded public education.

    As for sex only happening during marriage … I doubt you could successfully classify people’s politics by their stance on sex outside of marriage. But, perhaps someone did. If you can share a reference, that would be an interesting study to read.

    Comment by Laurie Rogers — September 7, 2011 @ 1:41 am

  17. To Howard:
    The Zinn Education Project was created in 2007, with help from activist Howard Zinn (1922-2010). Zinn was a vocal and visible political activist for about 60 years, up to and including the month he died. The Web site was created to showcase Zinn’s activist philosophy and various works.

    Comment by Laurie Rogers — September 7, 2011 @ 2:30 am

  18. Hey– isn’t a big feature of “social justice” supposed to be addressing income inequality and kids stuck in poverty?

    So…. wouldn’t teaching math for social justice mean…. Teaching ACTUAL MATH so the kids had a shot at oppurtunities their parents missed? You know, sort of like what the notoriously Social-justice-prone Catholic schools did in the first half of the 20th century, so that the children of immigrant day-laborers went on to become middle class Doctors and Engineers?

    Oh wait! But if there was an accessible path OUT of poverty, a lot of these “thinkers” would be out of their lucrative non-profit jobs!

    So it’s obviously more beneficial to set up a two-tiered educational system, where the top tier gets Kumon and Caltech, and the bottom tier gets to flunk out of remedial math at the Community College and produce more kids for these groups to ‘help.’

    Seriously– sometimes I think a lot of these modern “social justice” schemes are nothing more than a plot to keep the poor in their place and sedated so they don’t get all uppity and attempt to earn a better living or send their kids to the schools in enclaves like Potomac, MD…

    Comment by Deirdre Mundy — September 7, 2011 @ 7:55 am

  19. “Flooding” was your (rather hysterical) language, not mine (that’s why I put the word in quotations). For example, you said, “This is just a snippet of the politics flooding K-12 education at the expense of academics.”

    My point was to agree with you that politics and ideology displace academics too frequently and your social justice math was a good example of that, but also to point out that it’s not just (as your post seems to imply) coming from progressive groups or via progressive notions. The examples I gave have been part of my experience as a teacher and parent, but they are also exceedingly well-documented. If you haven’t read about or witnessed in public schools the increase in the teaching of creationism and intelligent design as science (and unfortunately, this is not just limited to a few districts), the increase of abstinence-only sex education programs (which the George W. Bush admin openly funded), and the increase of knee-jerk militaristic themes and propaganda in schools (and in our larger public discourse and culture) since 9/11 (and no I’m not talking about thoughtful observance of Memorial and Veterans Days, which I support) then you’ve really had your head in the sand. And, bona fide historians successfully make the case that slavery wasn’t the primary cause of the Civil War? Really? I’m afraid you’re the one who must provide references for that one (and I’m afraid scholarship a la David Barton doesn’t count).

    I know you didn’t intend it as such and perhaps this is just my own unique take, but yes, I did find that this was ironically an anti-political political post. Your comment to me only cements that impression. Sorry.

    Comment by Rachel Levy — September 7, 2011 @ 11:52 am

  20. Hi, Rachel. You don’t have any references, then? That’s too bad. I was interested in reading them.

    You seem angry, yet we should be in sync. I said I’m opposed to ALL politicking in schools, and you said you agree with that.

    What is a “knee-jerk militaristic theme”?

    I haven’t had my head in the sand — Our schools don’t even celebrate Christmas or Easter, much less advocate for creationism. Despite there being an Air Force Base nearby, I don’t see a shred of militarism. Local sex-ed programs do suggest abstinence, I think … but that might just be “being responsible,” since they are talking to children. We found the school’s presentation of the Civil War a bit simplistic: The North (anti-slavery) was right, and the South (pro-slavery) was to blame. I think the class did a trial or something … We filled in some gaps.

    I’m still not sure your point is well supported.

    Comment by Laurie Rogers — September 7, 2011 @ 4:02 pm

  21. I have to agree with Ms. Levy, your valid points about social justice intentions undermining math education are overwhelmed by your ideological rant against progressive politics.
    I can imagine two kinds of social justice and math pairings: The first, to take the minimum-wage example, a sophisticated complementing of important math concepts with social studies examples that the students are studying in other classes. Let’s say they are studying the labor movement (oh, sorry, they don’t do that anymore, but let’s say they did) in history class, or they are studying the market economy in another class. The question of how the minimum wage relates to rates of spending, rates of saving, taxation rates, could be used to teach math concepts in algebra, calculus (rates of change, coupled with inflation). I would frame it as you did in your discussion of Stinson’s article, as finding things that students are interested in, and leveraging their interest to teach math, rather than telling them what to be interested in. But I think many teens are interested in issues of justice, whether from the left or the right, and leveraging that interest into an engaging math curriculum can help if not overdone.
    But rather than engage Stinson (the abstract was unintelligible? who cares?) you chose to pivot to go after the shadowy world of “activists.” Bringing up tired bugbears like Bill Ayers or Howard Zinn (or known communists! or gasp! a former Black Panther!) as if they are overrunning the math curriculum does your piece no favors. The horrible social justice political organizations that you point to are trying to reform social studies and history curricula. You don’t agree with their view of history and social studies. Fine. But don’t sloppily gesture at them as you insinuate that they are all out to get the math curriculum. Most of the links you point to are liberal organizations intending to change social studies curricula to include more coverage of minorities, the labor movement, or lefty politics. There are plenty of organizations on the other side. My take is that the conservatives are winning, with the recent Texas textbook controversy, the fact that belief in evolution is low and falling, and your amazing contention that the civil war was about states rights. But even if the right isn’t winning, they are certainly fighting this same culture war, and your painting one side of the picture distracts your point about math.

    Math curricula should be rigorous and interesting. In some of these cases, rigor is undermined by efforts to be interesting. But this does not have to be so. Rigorous math does not have to mean inert. Many teens are interested in social justice, why not use that to teach them math?

    As for those links you requested:
    The civil war: you could start with David Blight’s lectures but there is obviously an amazing amount of scholarship about the primary cause of the civil war being about slavery. You could also just read the words of the slave states themselves, in their articles of secession:
    Georgia: 2nd sentence “For the last ten years we have had numerous and serious causes of complaint against our non-slave-holding confederate States with reference to the subject of African slavery. They have endeavored to weaken our security, to disturb our domestic peace and tranquility, and persistently refused to comply with their express constitutional obligations to us in reference to that property”
    Mississippi: “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery– the greatest material interest of the world”
    You could also read some of the many many books and other materials recommended at Ta-Nehisi Coates’ blog posts on the civil war at the Atlantic. This is absolutely identified with the right. Do you really need a link to evidence that modern politicians who court a Lost Cause constituency are conservative and right wing ideologically?

    As for creationism vs. evolution: Not a fringe issue. Unless you count the state of Texas as “fringe”. The Discovery Institute, has a budget that I would bet dwarfs the organizations you link to (probably combined). Former Black Panthers, commie pinkos, and Howard Zinn tend not to have the spending power of current and former captains of industry.

    Anyways, count me as disappointed. This piece told me more about the author’s fears and politics than about what math curricula do and don’t do, and should or shouldn’t do.

    Comment by Cedar Riener — September 7, 2011 @ 4:07 pm

  22. Thank you for your comment, Mr. Riener. I remain unconvinced that using political themes to teach math results in the teaching of sufficient math. It presents (debatable) political assumptions and conclusions, with a shred of math attached. The math class becomes a sociology or poli sci class – with a particular view point.

    This discussion helps to prove my argument. Instead of discussing math, we’re now discussing personal politics. That’s the main, unforgiveable problem of using politics to teach math. However, you and Ms. Levy seem certain that your politics are correct, and that mine, as you understand them, are incorrect. If you’re in control of the classroom, I guess your views hold sway. What happens to the children who have a viewpoint different from yours?

    I haven’t actually shared my politics here. I said that learned people disagree with Ms. Levy’s assumptions and conclusions, that there is room for a discussion, that political discussions have no place in a math class, and that proselytizing has no place at all in public schools. My politics are beside the point, as everyone’s should be.

    I read through your links – thank you for providing them – but I didn’t find them convincing. Texas is one state out of 50. Georgia’s statement of secession actually supports both arguments, that the war was fought over slavery AND that it was fought over states’ rights. Georgia resented the prospect of being “ruled” by the North – yes, in issues of slavery, but in other things as well. This is one reason why that discussion continues.

    I skimmed through some of your other writing, and I find that we agree on some things, such as the need for more academic content. My thought is that your perception of my politics is in the way of finding agreement here (or respectful disagreement). I know you don’t teach K-12 math, but if I were faced with entrusting my child to your math class, taught via issues of social justice, what do you think I should do?

    Comment by Laurie Rogers — September 8, 2011 @ 10:28 am

  23. I agree that adding politics to math class doesn’t result in good math teaching. But I don’t think integrating social science and social studies content into a math class necessarily undermine the rigor of the math. I could teach geometry and trigonometry through how slave traders designed slave ships. What matters is not how much I know about slave ships, but how much I know about teaching trigonometry. The political content runs the risk of being a distraction, but it also can serve as a hook to grab students’ interest.
    The discussion here has gone the way it did because you shared your politics with dog whistle terms and bogeymen (Howard Zinn, Bill Ayers, communists, “former Black Panther,” “full amnesty”), and your post includes no details about how politics has actually undermined math education, or what “pure” math education should look like.
    I honestly kept expecting to read an example of how a sociology major was teaching sociology to my 3rd grader in math class but all I got was more italics, and a link to the bland mission and goals of the Spokane Public Schools:
    “Continuing our growth and development of skills, knowledge, and behaviors in a climate of trust and collaboration.”

    Should math education only include numbers? If we frame a word problem with apples and oranges instead dollars and cents, or Native Americans and diseased blankets, does that make it a better math curriculum?

    I’ll admit my politics place me in the lefty pinko commie territory. But as you can tell from my other writings, I find some strains of progressive education well-intentioned folly. When I try to teach math to college students in my classes, I try to preserve the rigor, and convey to students the mathematical structure of statistical techniques like ANOVA or CHI-square, or the physics in my perception classes. But I am also mindful of the interests and knowledge that they come into the class with. When I choose examples, I chose ones that will engage them. For the many females in my psychology classes, we sometimes examine the methodology of experiments attempting to explain issues of gender in science. This was particularly engaging when I taught at a women’s college. Was that me allowing my social justice agenda to get in the way of the math? Should I restrict my examples to pure math without any ethical ramifications?

    If you were to trust me with your child in my statistics class, you could engage with the statistics curriculum. Do you care about how and whether your child learns ANOVA or regression? How should one teach the normal distribution and drive home the difference between the median and the mean? I feel pretty confident in my pedagogy on those questions, regardless of the particulars of the examples.
    Likewise, I would ask actual math teachers about these social justice math curricula.

    I won’t continue on the Civil War front or try to convince you of the importance of Texas textbooks, but I will just say that you should be aware that the arguments you are making would not perceived as neutral, “this is all open for debate” sort of arguments. In the south there is an active movement (and has been for a long time) to scrub the Civil War by disentangling the evil of slavery from the Confederate cause. This is a contentious issue, but not between historians and scholars of the civil war, but between modern political factions, much in the way that climate change is contentious, or evolution is contentious. The scholarly opinion is settled, but well-funded opponents undermine the consensus. I am obviously not going to convince you that the Civil War was about slavery, but you should at least realize that the position you take (“discussion continues”) signals your political bent just as sure as a “Jesse Helms for President” bumper sticker.

    Comment by Cedar Riener — September 8, 2011 @ 4:48 pm

  24. Mr. Riener, I haven’t said the Civil War wasn’t about slavery. I’ve not stated my opinion on it.

    I believe that you and I lack a point of stasis, which is that we don’t have the same goals in this conversation, not the same question to answer — not even the same definitions. With such a situation, a resolution is impossible.

    I appreciate the comments everyone offered on my article, and all of the caring I see. I also appreciate this country’s dedicated teachers. I know your lives aren’t easy (and probably about to become more difficult). I’m working on making your dedication more visible to the public.

    Thanks, all, and thank you, Robert.

    Comment by Laurie Rogers — September 8, 2011 @ 11:40 pm

  25. I recall when working on a temporary assignment to a Senator’s office on the Hill that the math education issue I was researching was garnering a lot of interest until I made the mistake of mentioning that Lynne Cheney had made some statements and written op-eds against fuzzy math. The Senator I was working for is a Democrat, so the staffers decided the issue was too partisan to take on. So the association of rigor and sensible education strategies remains somehow linked to those who are conservative. I happen to be a moderate, have voted Democrat all my life but I have been called “right wing” for my views on education. Let’s hope that with people like Laurie writing so well about the problem that we can all identify education as the non-partisan issue that it really is. (My experience with math ed on the Hill can be found here: http://educationnext.org/anamazeingapproachtomath/

    Comment by Barry Garelick — September 10, 2011 @ 12:43 pm

  26. Here is a historical example of mixing math and social justice ideas that had a lot of impact on shaping California’s direction in the 1990s. Offered without further comment.

    “The 20 percent of California families with the lowest annual earnings pay an average of 14.1 percent in state and local taxes, and the middle 20 percent pay only 8.8 percent. What does that difference mean? Do you think it is fair? What additional questions do you have?” (Mathematics Framework for California Public Schools, Sacramento, 1992; p. 26)

    (Note: The example footnotes an USA Today article as the source for the data)

    Comment by Ze'ev Wurman — September 10, 2011 @ 6:48 pm

  27. The right-wing Texas and California curriculums actually are documented as being in use.

    I would like to know exactly how many schools, if any, use this “social justice” math text book, endorsed by the late leftist activist Howard Zinn.

    I have a hard time imagining that many region local school boards would give this the ok.

    Comment by Harold — September 11, 2011 @ 5:23 pm

  28. Barry,

    Education is as partisan as any issue can be. Robert’s blog attracts primarily (not always) folks of the same mindset. There are a number of education blogs (Bridging Differences from Education Week) where people weigh in from both sides and it sometimes gets a tad ugly. If you believe there’s gridlock in Washington you ain’t seen nothing until you get in the middle of a good ole education donnybrook.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — September 11, 2011 @ 9:23 pm

  29. I agree with the comment from Peter and my parents are only expecting me to teach math and prepare their child for success in future math classes. That is my agenda and all of this other political nonsense is enough to drive me back to the private school teaching where I started. On the other hand, I feel the public school needs teachers who are not willing to succumb to the pressure of teaching social justice then if time permits, math. My question is what are teachers to do to combat this evil giant that pressures teachers into pushing a different agenda in the classroom? How do you not go to meetings that are required and discuss whatever the new wave of politics is that year? I would like to stay in public teaching but I am feeling that I must teach social justice to keep my job.

    Comment by Gail Gese — September 22, 2011 @ 10:14 am

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URL

Leave a comment

While the Core Knowledge Foundation wants to hear from readers of this blog, it reserves the right to not post comments online and to edit them for content and appropriateness.