Math education has become yet another battleground in today’s culture wars.
When Oregon governor Kate Brown signed a law in July that suspended math and reading proficiency requirements for high school graduation for three years, an uproar ensued. Republicans charged that the state had abandoned academic standards, while the Democratic governor’s spokesperson declared that the move would help benefit the state’s “Black, Latino, Latinx, Indigenous, Asian, Pacific Islander, Tribal, and students of color.”
A headline on The Dispatch, a conservative website, might give you a sense of the debate’s tenor: “Oregon Democrats Resurrect the ‘Soft Bigotry of Low Expectations’ … A new law allows students to graduate from high school without the ability to read, write, or do math.”
According to Robert Parris Moses, the civil rights hero who helped organize the 1964 Mississippi Freedom Summer project that registered thousands of Black voters and who died in July at the age of 86, mathematics is itself a civil rights issue, “a passport to full citizenship for disenfranchised people” and an issue of “justice and equity.”
In today’s data- and technology-rich, STEM-oriented society, those without quantitative and statistical literacy, he believed, were relegated to the back of another bus.
Civic equity and access to the advanced employment ultimately hinge on mastery of math. But in California as recently as 2017, 110,000 of 170,000 undergraduates placed in remedial math never, ever fulfilled the math requirement for an associate degree.
According to one study of community college students, 50 to 60 percent of the disparity in degree completion is driven by which students are placed in remedial math classes.
Mathematical competence remains perhaps the biggest barrier to academic success. Despite over 30 years of math education reform and the steadfast efforts of reformers like Bob Moses and Uri Treisman, we not yet figured out how to bring all students to a minimum viable level of mathematical understanding.
Since math is a “promoter of possibility,” we must do better.
Several principles have guided math education reform.
- Quantitative literacy requires not simply memorization and the mechanistic application of a set of procedures and formulas, but conceptual understanding and mathematical reasoning, which can only be achieved through discussion and asking students to formulate explanations.
- Math instruction should engage students in meaningful and authentic tasks that utilize real-world problems and everyday situations to help students master key math concepts, tools and techniques.
- Effective and engaging teaching requires math Instructors to improve their ability to explain, illustrate and lead inquiries, discussions and projects that involve real-life issues.
- Math curricula should align with students’ interests and prospective majors.
We shouldn’t be surprised that in today’s highly polarized political environment, pedagogy itself has become embroiled in conflict. Critics charge that the new new math, with its emphasis on thought processes and written and oral communication and its shift away from teacher-directed instruction:
- Downplays the importance of mastering the step-by-step procedures that are essential to mathematical problem solving.
- Substitutes estimation and thinking strategies for actual computation.
- Devalues the importance of memorization and practice and creates the illusion that there are no right or wrong answers.
Without embroiling myself in this dispute, I do think it’s fair to say that in today’s world, numeracy is about as important as competence in reading and writing. How, then, can we best achieve much higher levels of quantitative and statistical literacy?
One exciting strategy that a growing number of K-12 math teachers have pursued is to link math and social justice issues.
These instructors have sought to engage students and demonstrate math’s relevance by studying racial and class disparities, crime and incarceration, inequalities of wealth and income, gerrymandering and ranked-choice voting, immigration, the distribution of disaster aid and college entrance exam scores, the relationship between campaign spending and votes received, and environmental issues using algebraic functions, data visualization techniques, mathematical modeling and statistical methods.
Using math as a window into social realities is sometimes derided as “woke math,” and there can be no doubt that there are instances when this approach devolves into discussions of power, identity and oppression rather than actual math instruction.
Diane Ravitch, then in her conservative phase, regarded “social justice mathematics” (or what she dismissed as “ethnomathematics”) as anathema, a fusion of political correctness and lax educational standards, and a shameless, bald-faced attempt to bring an explicitly political agenda into the classroom.
Does this pedagogical approach help students master math? We don’t know. Is teaching math through a social justice lens creating a two-tiered system, in which affluent students learn “college prep math” while those from low-income backgrounds learn “real-world math” that ill prepares them for success in college STEM courses? Again, we don’t know.
In the end, the efficacy of this approach is an empirical question that requires randomized controlled trials.
Long a barrier to equal educational opportunity, mathematics is too important to be reserved to those with a knack for solving equations. It is indeed a key to equity and opportunity. Just as we have embraced writing across the curriculum, we also need to do the same for math.
After all, as Galileo so rightly observed in 1623, mathematics is the language not just of science and technology, but of nature and society, too.
Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.