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Saturday, September 3, 2011

Politics driving math classes - not equity, justice ... or math

By Laurie H. Rogers

Several 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 encouraged 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 provided materials that focus on the “oppressed,” without offering much in counterbalance. He offered 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.

Please note: The information in this post is copyrighted. The proper citation is: Rogers, L. (September 2011). "Politics driving math classes - not equity, justice ... or math." Retrieved (date) from the Betrayed Web site:

This article was published Sept. 5, 2011, on the Core Knowledge blog at

This article also was published Sept. 5, 2011, on the Education Views Web site at

This article also was published Sept. 6, 2011, on the Education News Web site at


Bruce Price said...

You say "progressive." I say "repressive." Let's call the whole thing off.

In 1953, Arthur Bestor wrote a wonderful book titled "Educational Wastelands --The Retreat from Learning in our Public Schools." Chapter 4 Is titled "Progressive Education and Regressive Education." So he was perhaps the first to state that one leads to the other.

The NCTM, which helped to create Reform Math, has always seemed to me a far-left organization that pretends to care about academics. Who elected them? Why are they allowed to butt in?

CM said...

It's happening in science, too. Thankfully, it's getting recognized. Do these educrat people EVER stop peddling their poison apples?! We should strongly urge them to move to China. Seriously.

An article to remind us that we are not alone in our disgust:

Burma Williams said...

As a liberal politically, I can assure you that the NCTM and the current math drivel has nothing to do with true liberal political thinking. Yes, I strongly oppose the introduction of any political agenda into any public school class, be it math or history or physical education because I believe in democracy not brainwashing.

The NCTM has to take full blame for the current math mess. They have been pushing content-free math for decades, rather like the dropping of grammar back in the late 1960's because it wasn't relevant. Actually, i think that these positions on academic subjects are taken because one doesn't really have to know anything about grammar, math, or history to "teach" any of these subjects if one can fill in with political issues, "relevancy" issues, or "conceptual learning," or other such content-free stuff.

It is all about not having to be a truly educated teacher or"educator" and all about power, avoidance of having to actually teach in the classroom,
money, control, and egotism. So many people are pontificating about "how to teach math" and avoiding actually working in public schools teaching math with content. It is so much easier to write "how to" than to actually learn enough math to be able to "instruct," which requires actual content knowledge along with teaching ability.

This is why, I believe, that it is so important for those of us who can remember the days when a student actually had homework about solving equations with the proper math equations written out in math notation and deductive proof in geometry, and so on to continue to speak out about these things. We must keep these ideas alive even though we are deep in a morass of ignorant "professional math educators" who truly don't know an equation from an elbow.

Eventually, the pendulum will swing the other way and content will be reintroduced into our children's classrooms as if it were a new idea, and we need to be there to show what should be taught. Don't quite, don't give up, don't even waste time arguing with the current crop of "professionals."

Teach your children yourself if you have to. Your children will be the ones to get a college education, to be able to think and reason clearly, to fill the important jobs in business, government, and universities because they will be really educated and ready to do college-level work when they are in college, make good decisions and deal well with data in business, and know academic topics well enough and how to write to be able to do Ph. D. degree work in order to become university professors.

Our children need us, the future needs us. Don't let the introduction of politics, social agenda, and such divide us, for we have one powerful goal in common: true education with academic content and clear thinking for one's self. Our democracy demands that we be an educated electorate regardless of our religion, our political party affiliation, our ethnic backgrounds. We are Americans all.

Laurie H. Rogers said...

Thank you, Burma. Lovely. For me, the issue isn't about left vs. right, or Democrat vs. Republican, or progressive vs. conservative. The issue is about the classroom -- politics vs. academics. I don't want ANY political view usurping academics in the classroom.

Education’s socio-activists assume they know my politics because I fight for academics for the children. That assumption should speak volumes to parents. Only a conservative would fight for math?? Not true. My politics are my business. What’s true is that parents fight for math, and education “professionals” fight – unfortunately quite effectively – for their activist agenda.

Everyone in the community should be arguing for rigorous academics. The fact that parents do, and education “professionals” don’t, is disturbing. It should be cause for their immediate dismissal.

I will speak to anyone about academics. I have friends and allies in all camps -- except most of the camp that runs education (and anyone who aligns with them). I am for academics, and they are for their activist agenda. I want children to have successful postsecondary lives. They want children to grow up and "transform" society.

In Spokane, when I talked about the math curriculum, administrators did everything they could to refocus on poverty and other social issues. The people who run this school district have repeatedly said curriculum isn’t that important, that it isn’t the “be all and end all Laurie Rogers makes it out to be.” The truth, which they know, is that curriculum is critically important. But if parents believe it isn’t, we’re less likely to question what’s in it.

This agenda is being implemented largely under the radar, under the guise of the pleasant words "ethics" and "justice." It’s taken me a while to see it, even as an advocate. There is more to say about it.

I agree with you that this non-academic agenda in our schools has nothing to do with true liberal thought. True liberals want children to be properly educated. This is a very different political agenda, Burma.

Barry Garelick said...

If equity is the issue they think it is, then why don't they address the inequity that is inherent with the use of the NSF-funded atrocities such as Everyday Math, Investigations, CMP and the like? These programs introduce an inequity in that students in affluent communities have the avenue of getting help from parents, tutors, or learning centers such as Sylvan. In poor communities, students are held hostage to the inferior programs, but the poor test scores in these areas are dismissed as artifacts of poverty, broken homes, drugs, etc.

Laurie H. Rogers said...

True, Barry. Their argument goes: Children from low-income families fail because they're from low-income families. This is deemed to be something everyone knows. Ipso facto. No one ever needs to prove it.

Ironically, by not properly teaching them, the education establishment is oppressive to those children. It also contributes to the poverty problem while blaming poverty for all failures.

Consider how much less acceptable it would be if -- instead of their "we can't teach them, they're too poor," they were saying, "we can't teach them, they're too black." There would rightly be a public outcry. Yet, for some reason, it's deemed all right to imply that children from low-income families are nearly impossible to teach.

Terrible attitude. So prevalent. I wonder how the law would consider these assumptions about low-income families, if we asked.

Michelle said...

I'd hate to sound cruel, but I've noticed that many parents are either ignorant of what their children are learning (missing at school), simply do not care enough to investigate, or are plain too dumb to even analyse the content of rubbish taught at school, that it may be in society's best interests to just let those children flunk.

For those smarter parents who do get it, they will send their kids to tuition or teach at home, giving their children a better chance in life. You can't fight everyones battle for them!

Natural selection? I would say that sometimes you have to be cruel to be kind. I've had enough battling school principals, teachers and bureaucrats for no reward, time lost that could have been spent teaching my children.

The problem is that teachers themselves have been educated with constructivist pedagogy and this causes a vicious cycle of hopelessness in the system - the blind leading the blind.

Fight the battle by educating your children your own way at home and let them go to school to play, then at least they'll have a chance to succeed.

Try to fight the system and you will not win, there are too many layers of protection around reformed, dumbed down educational models and too many vested non-academic interests. Do what some cultures in this country do and forget about the system and instead concentrate on your kids.