Laurie Rogers: Politics, Not Math, Driving Many Math Classes

Laurie Rogers argues that social justice and political motivations have crept into mathematics classrooms and curricula, pushing out math in the process.

math_social_justiceSeveral 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.


  1. Doug

    Math for social justice sounds like a great idea to me. Nothing like telling the kids how we are all being hoodwinked by the rich class. Talk about relevant.

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September 6th, 2011

Laurie Rogers

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