A commission of California educators has been working for some time on new guidelines for teaching mathematics in California K-12 public schools. People all over the country are weighing in, mostly over an idea that has been expressed in connection with the proposed guidelines: Math is racist.
Well, math itself isn’t racist, of course. So, how are people getting the idea that California’s Instructional Quality Commission thinks math is racist? It’s because the commission has drawn attention to inequities in the way math is taught, and people use the word “math” as a catch-all term for anything associated with it, such as the teaching of math, to deceive and score political points.
Math is the subject to be taught. It isn’t racist. The teaching of it can be racist. The teaching of a subject is not the subject taught.
How is the teaching of math racist?
I noticed one way it was back in middle school in Seattle. At the time, I desperately wanted to stop having to take endlessly recycled and rehashed arithmetic courses, because they were boring me out of my mind. I wasn’t allowed to — not because there were no advanced classes I could be put in, but because I wasn’t in the school’s list of college-track students.
So, at age 13, instead of finally being allowed to take algebra and trig as I’d been wanting to since I started learning algebra on my own three years earlier, I was marked down as “vocation-bound” and shop class material.
Now, don’t get me wrong. There’s nothing wrong with shop classes, and I don’t regret the time I spent taking them. I liked mechanical drafting. Electricity shop was fun, although I would have enjoyed it more if I’d known about my then-undiagnosed anomalous color vision — I couldn’t read the color-coded resistors. So the radio I built using the wrong resistors fried as soon as I plugged it in and turned it on, filling the shop with black smoke from burning insulation.
Metal shop was also fun. I wish I still had the dustpan they made me make.
But we were talking about racism. So how did I observe racism in all that? Well, when I looked around in my shop classes, I noticed that my classmates included almost all the Black students in the school. But, when I’d see students filing out of a college-track class, no Black students. Huh.
So this is what that California commission is really talking about. The commission has also observed that the schools’ widespread practice of separating students into two tracks, college-bound and vocation-bound, has long resulted in denying opportunities to students because of how they were perceived earlier in their education.
Looking back on it, I don’t know why my Seattle middle school pegged me for vocation-bound. I had been in a different school system. When I started at Seattle, I don’t remember being tested. I don’t remember being interviewed. I just remember finding out, about a week in, that certain courses were “not to be for me,” because they were college-track classes and I was not in the college track.
Seattle schools changed their assessment of me after my results came back from a school-wide achievement test. My score was so high, I became in trouble suddenly for being a maladjusted under-achiever. The fact that my classes weren’t challenging became my fault, instead of the school’s, and they put me on the college track “whether you want it or not.”
Obviously, my method for getting into college-track classes wouldn’t work for everyone.
The California commission is trying to figure out policies that would break up the inequities. They are right to try and do so. They shouldn’t be carped at for trying to claim that math is racist, especially since that isn’t what they are claiming at all.
I don’t like what I see of their proposed guidelines. I would give students more autonomy. Let them try college-track classes if they want, without making them wait or requiring qualifications be met.
Also, why did my schools make me take arithmetic over and over again from first through eighth grade?
Schools are mental.
Dr. Wes Browning is a one time math professor who has experienced homelessness several times. He supplied the art for the first cover of Real Change in November of 1994 and has been involved with the organization ever since. This is his weekly column, Adventures in Irony, a dry verbal romp of the absurd. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Read more of the May 26 - June 1, 2021 issue.