Is mathematics racist? California could blaze pathway with woke math

California education officials are considering applying a social justice paradigm to teaching K-12 mathematics that would erase “white supremacy” from the subject and eliminate gifted classes for students.

Proponents of the woke New Math say the way the subject currently is taught is suffused with white supremacy and handicaps some minority students by insisting on allegedly racist concepts such as arriving at correct answers.

But some academics and conservative thinkers fear forcing critical race theory (CRT) into math classes would mark a further retreat for the United States from its preeminent global position in mathematics and sciences, an advantage long maintained via an influx of foreign scholars.

“Ill-conceived [diversity, equity and inclusion] policies, often informed by CRT, and the declining standards of K-12 math education feed each other in a vicious circle, which is in time going to affect the entire mathematics profession and, more broadly, all STEM disciplines,” wrote three mathematicians from Princeton University, New York University and the University of California-Irvine in a recent piece for the online magazine Persuasion.

California’s Instructional Quality Commission is considering introducing into classrooms across the state a modified version of “A Pathway to Equitable Math Instruction,” a curriculum plan developed by the online toolkit EquitableMath.org that aims to remove cultural bias from education.

The social justice curriculum is “an integrated approach to mathematics that centers Black, LatinX and Multilingual students in grades 6-8 (and) addresses barriers to math equity,” according to the organization’s mission statement.

While doing so, it offers “opportunities for ongoing self-reflection as they seek to develop an anti-racist math practice.” Teachers in particular are “asked to reflect on their own biases to transform their instructional practice.”

California is not the first state to mull applying critical race theory to math: School districts in Oregon, Washington and Virginia are also experimenting with what is called “anti-racist math.” But the Golden State’s 6.1 million public and charter school K-12 students make it an enormous laboratory for the change.

“This is not a California only story, although California is always out front on the exciting new trends and fads,” said Williamson Evers, a senior fellow at the libertarian Independent Institute in Oakland. “But they want to inject environmental and social justice into the curriculum and they would discourage all acceleration until the 11th grade.”

According to California officials, “Pathway” authors are modifying the blueprint, which is one reason it was temporarily put aside as the manual for classrooms around the state.

However, at a recent meeting, members of the Instructional Quality Commission expressed hope it would be incorporated into instructional material for teachers, and perhaps resurrected when the state’s Board of Education meets in November.

Some scholars say the idea that math supports or is based on white supremacy ignores the fact that mathematics is a universal language that has been discovered and developed by diverse cultures over millennia.

“It is absurd to accuse mathematics as being ‘racist,’” said William Happer, a professor of physics emeritus at Princeton University. “We use Indian numerals that come to us through the Arabs. There are still lots of distinguished mathematicians in India who speak the same worldwide mathematical language as mathematicians in North America, Europe, the Arab world, India, China, Japan, Africa, South America, etc.

“Greek geometry, much of it borrowed from Egypt and Mesopotamia, is still one of the most sublime human achievements,” Mr. Happer said.

Jo Boaler, a math education professor at the Stanford Graduate School of Education, is one of the drafters of the new California proposal, which draws heavily on the “A Pathway to Equitable Math Instruction.”

Rather than focus on race, Ms. Boaler said people should look at the emphasis on “data science,” a way the new pedagogy helps students apply the math they learn to real-life issues like fighting viruses, wildfires and personal finance.

“This has prompted a lot of media attention — much of which has distorted the intent and content of the proposed framework,” Ms. Boaler told The Washington Times.

And rather than simply eradicate math programs for gifted students, the proposal would allow students who may have been shunted aside too early to have a chance to learn more math, she said.

“One of the big issues addressed in the new framework is the way students are systematically excluded from higher level content through tracking,” Ms. Boaler said. “Such methods may have made sense in the era of fixed brain thinking, but we now know that our brains are growing and changing all the time. In the new framework we are working to address the tracking problem, sharing other approaches including examples of schools and districts that are working to keep access to higher level mathematics open to all students as long as possible.”

The math classroom hierarchy has been a problem, too, according to Ms. Boaler.

“We are not saying ‘math is racist,’ as some seem to be claiming. We are saying that math has been taught in a way that has led to many inequities over the years,” she said.

But by shifting the emphasis to “equity,” education reformers spoil the discipline, many scholars say.

“We need to get racial politics out of the equation before it’s too late,” mathematicians Sergiu Klainerman of Princeton, Svetlana Jitomirskaya of the University of California-Irvine and Percy Deift of NYU said in an article in the online magazine Persuasion.

The trio note that many of the people driving the latest change are not mathematicians but education school faculties who develop “teacher preparation programs” that “teach very little substantive mathematics.”

And one of the worst developments there is “the bizarre doctrine” of “anti-racist mathematics,” according to Mr. Drift, Mr. Klainerman and Ms. Jitomirskaya.

What’s more, Californians who have contacted the Instructional Quality Commission overwhelmingly oppose the introduction of critical race theory into math teaching.

“I fundamentally disagree with the notion that math is permeated by white supremacy, and [that] showing your work is an example of white supremacy,” wrote Alan Fisher, a parent and a physicist at Stanford. “This is wrong at its core. Math is a fundamental science; it has no ideology and is the same worldwide.”

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