The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Is math racist? Wrong question.

Some schools are considering altering the way they teach math to better serve struggling K-12 students. But the debate is being sucked into the culture wars. (iStock)
Placeholder while article actions load

Is math racist?” asked USA Today recently, to near-universal derision.

The answer is no, of course. Mathematics, the (inanimate!) science of numbers and their various operations, abstractions and transformations, does not have a particular racial affinity. As damage control, the paper soon updated the headline to instead ask whether math education was racist. Both iterations, however, were a reflection of the current paranoia about a social justice “agenda” being smuggled into schools.

The question headlined a story about how some schools are considering altering the way they teach math to better serve struggling K-12 students. The piece described how teachers are using new techniques to better engage students, such as collaborative learning instead of solitary problem sets and an emphasis on real-world examples — including those that occasionally deal with questions of race or justice (calculating the living wage in one’s community, for instance).

What should be at issue, in other words, are pedagogy and capability: what works and what helps the most students succeed. The culture-warring headline was just a distraction.

Follow Christine Emba's opinionsFollow

The story also discussed some school systems — in California most notably, where achievement gaps for Black, Latino and low-income students are the widest in the nation — that are considering changes to their instructional framework. Proposals include shifting the order of subjects (delaying Algebra 1 until the ninth grade, say), creating data-science classes and integrated courses that combine elements of different math disciplines, or eliminating math tracking and ability grouping, including “gifted” tracks.

Progressive activists have made terms such as “anti-racism” and “decolonization” the stuff of best-selling books, their use de rigueur in any conversation about diversity and equity. Conservatives, in turn, have jumped on such talk with delighted fury: It’s Marxism! Wokeism! These teachers hate America and want to hobble our tiny geniuses!

All of this is misrepresentation, of course. What is really being suggested is that math be taught in students’ vernacular — with problems based on where they live, for instance, or geometry related to familiar objects and instructional styles that lean into student strengths.

Making a subject interesting and relevant so that a student will engage with it isn’t a nefarious liberal plot; it’s good teaching. In many cases, there is evidence that more accessible instructional methods benefit learners and even improve test scores.

Yes, there are students who seem more naturally talented at math than others. And it’s true that children who have an early interest in or substantial facility for math shouldn’t be forced to suppress their desire to learn and progress in the name of “equity.” That would be equity to the lowest common denominator, which no one is actually asking for.

But it is also true that certain modes of identifying and fast-tracking those students may be shaped by unintentionally race-based bias: how educators expect someone “good at math” to look and act. This can have negative implications for students who don’t fit the preconceived mold — either leaving them underserved or discouraging their achievement.

For almost as long as I can remember, I’ve thought of myself as bad at math. I’m good at reading, good at writing (well, you be the judge), but calculus eluded me during high school. These days — brain further weakened by age — a complicated restaurant check can fill me with anxiety.

I never blamed math itself. My teachers, I believe, did try with me. But I wonder: When, exactly, did I decide I was bad at math? Was it an issue of ability, or encouragement, or both? Would different classroom experiences have left me with a less fixed mind-set about my own abilities? Could I have been less prone to write myself off?

For the sake of students like me, it’s worth finding out. Any renewed attention to different educational approaches — California’s current debate included — is worthwhile. But turning this into a culture-war question, rather than one about how best to teach and learn, serves no one.

Public education is meant to be for all. Its purpose is not to sort out the “gifted” and leave the rest behind. Finding ways to support students of all kinds isn’t “woke.” It’s what teachers are meant to do.

Loading...