Activist Math

, Bethany Stotts, Leave a comment

With the 2006 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) results revealing that even America’s brightest, 90th- percentile math students score 22 points below the average industrial country’s brightest students, little doubt remains of America’s waning mathematic capabilities. According to M. J. Mcdermott, a meteorologist and Q13 Fox News (Seattle) weather reporter, the ongoing American mathematic illiteracy may be the result of misguided “reformed math” curriculum which fails to teach students the internationally recognized, efficient multiplication and division algorithms that older generations of Americans learned. Instead, children are encouraged to problem-solve without first developing efficient problem-solving techniques in multiplication and division.

Math by Calculator

As McDermott notes in her video, textbooks such as the 4th and 5th grade versions of Everyday Mathematics devote copious pages to non-germane topics such as a full-color 48-page world atlas to assist students in planning a world tour (4th grade) and full-color 60-page American atlas for planning an American tour (5th grade). Both 4th and 5th grade books devote 35 pages to calculator use, encouraging students to become dependent on the calculator rather than solving basic addition, subtraction, multiplication, or division problems by hand. This calculator dependency undercuts learning by depriving students of the chance to practice basic math skills learned in previous grades.

The Everyday Mathematics creators’ justification for devoting more class time on calculator use and geography-based projects than math problems insinuates that children cannot learn to do math without a calculator. The Everyday Mathematics teacher’s manual states that the textbook’s creators “do not believe it is worth student’s time and effort to fully develop highly efficient paper-and-pencil algorithms for all possible whole-number, fraction, and decimal division problems,” characterizing this as a “huge endeavor” which is “doomed to failure for many students.” In other words, the creators of “Everyday Math” urge teachers against extensively teaching the algorithms necessary to complete math assignments, and urge them to focus instead on practical application projects that require skills the students have not learned and—according to the writers—have little hope of ever learning. Instead, the creators of “Everyday Math” counsel that calculators are a useful substitute for pencil-and-paper problem-solving “particularly because quotients can be found quickly and accurately with a calculator.”

High school graduates continue to have significant problems with math skills, with common problems including “inability to work alone,” and “a lack of mastery and confidence with basic math skills like trigonometry, algebra, and even arithmetic, and a complete dependence on calculators,” stated McDermott. “A college professor recently told me that they get students in college who can’t do 4 × 6 without a calculator,” she added.

Math for Social Justice

The radicalization and politicization of math curricula in an ostensible attempt to increase math’s “relevance” to students may also be fostering watered-down curricula that spend little time on core concepts such as division, addition, algebra, and other essential skills. The “Revealing Racist Roots” curriculum (3Rs), designed by the Teacher Activist Groups (TAG), a coalition of the New York Collective of Radical Educators (NYCoRE), the Chicago Teachers for Social Justice (TSJ) and San Francisco Teachers 4 Social Justice (T4SJ) contains a mathematics unit designed to demonstrate that the all-white jury chosen for Mychal Bell’s trial was statistically improbable, and therefore inherently racist.

The “detailed mathematics unit” creators, Joyce Sia and Rico Gutstein are based in Chicago and have been given free rein by the Little Village Lawndale School for Social Justice to insert inflammatory messages about racial inequality into the classroom. For example, their section within the (3R’s) manual (pg. 21-26) instructs students to determine the statistical probability of picking a random all-white jury “in a town that is 85.6% white…and 14.4% people of color, which is the demographic makeup of Jena, Louisiana,” which has a low (15.4%) probability of randomly occurring.

Sia and Gutstein had their class read aloud the transcript of the hard-left Democracy Now!’s radio special on the Jena 6, and used biased, radical sources such as Free the Jena 6 and Left Turn Journal. Sia and Gutstein asked their students to answer the following questions for their report:

• “If you were one of the Jena 6, how would you want people to support you?”

• How did you use mathematics to answer this question? Explain in detail!

• “If someone told you that the [sic] Mychal Bell’s guilty verdict has nothing to do with mathematics, what would you say? If you think it does have to do with mathematics, how would you, in detail, convince them that you were right?” (emphasis original).

Not content to “prove” the racist roots of the Jena 6 trial, Sia and Gutstein actively courted political activism from their 11th grade students, adding as an an extra activity that students could “individually, or with a group, create a video for, or write a letter to, any or all of the Jena 6 stating your view of the situation and explaining the work you’ve done in your math class around the Jena 6. If you wish, this can actually be sent to Jena, Louisiana in time for protesting Mychal Bell’s Sentencing on Wednesday, September 20th” (emphasis added).

Bethany Stotts is a Staff Writer at Accuracy in Academia.