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Has the Left Gone too Far?: Addressing Racial Inequality in Primary Education

Launch yourself back into your first grade class and imagine this: Your teacher asks the class, “What’s four plus four?” Simple enough, you raise your hand and respond once called on, “Five!” Your teacher responds, “You’re close, but that’s the wrong answer.” Well, the Pathway for Equitable Math Instruction would agree you’re wrong, but not just mathematically. According to Pathway, you and your teacher’s simple interaction is actually morally wrong. You see, emphasizing the objective wrongness of your answer reinforces white supremacy. Allowing your teacher to govern who speaks emboldened a narrative that only authorities “can and should correct mistakes” which “reinforce[d] the ideas of perfectionism…and paternalism”. More harmfully, though, your teacher’s emphasis of your answer as “objectively wrong” was an elicitation of the perfectionist themes driving the culture of white supremacy. 

The left’s reforms to close the book on racism and segregation in the education system are certainly laudable in intent. For instance, the left’s proposed reforms of gifted and talented programs to expand opportunities to BIPOC students tangibly counteracts the effect these programs have on perpetuating racial segregation. By reallocating early-life educational resources to disenfranchised students and changing the methods school systems use to classify children as “gifted,” these programs hope to close the infamous achievement gap. But indoctrinating teachers and students into believing something as fallacious as the inherent connection between “student’s showing their work in…[more] than one way” and white supremacy is a leap beyond the left’s more reasoned reforms: the former relies on a fictitious distortion of reality, whereas the latter is derived from real empirical evidence.

Your previous classroom experience might seem fictional to many, and ridiculous to most, but it is a reality beginning to take shape across the country. Supported by million dollar grants from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the fringe advocacy groups behind Pathway’s anti-racist programming like Equitable Math have been contracted by the Oregon Department of Education for statewide teacher re-training programs, and have established partnerships with the Sacramento and Monterey County Offices of Education and even the Association of California Administrators. 

In their toolkit to nationalize the reimagination of math curriculum, Pathway explains that classroom interactions between teachers and students can be stripped of their racist elements by “visibilizing the toxic characteristics of white supremacy culture…with respect to math.” Pathway advocates that the power structures embedded within white supremacy culture are reflected in classrooms when teachers “require students to raise their hands before speaking.” However, within Pathway’s manual, there is no justification for how classroom power structures and perfectionist attitudes were ever specifically created by a culture of white supremacy, nor how the emphasis on “getting the right answer” automatically reinforces racial supremacy. 

Pathway lays out (without explanation) how community circles, dances, or storytelling will somehow disarm paternalistic power structures while maintaining the integrity of mathematical truth. In fact, in 2019 the school district of Seattle, alongside school districts throughout Oregon, California and Vermont, began reforming their K-12 curriculum to include teaching students how “math [is] manipulated to allow oppression and inequality to persist.” The Seattle school district’s new “learning objectives” for mathematics curriculum explain to students the “ways in which individuals and groups define mathematical knowledge so as to see ‘Western’ mathematics as the only legitimate expression of mathematical identity and intelligence” in addition to similar actions plans advocated by Pathway.  

First of all, it is a myth to begin with that the methods of “western math” should even be described by Pathway and Equitable Math as fundamentally “western” or “white”. Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi, a vastly influential mathematician in the Persian Empire, is largely credited with the development of algebra that consolidated the concepts explored by ancient Greeks and Egyptians. Euclid, a Greek mathematician from Egypt, is the father of the study of geometry. For school districts across the western seaboard to teach students that “western math” was designed within the culture of white supremacy is to dreadfully misread history, particularly because the “ancestral” methods of mathematics that buttress “western” math are largely non-white to begin with. 

But the larger point is that the racial identity of those who created mathematical practices does not necessarily, or really at all, bear on their intentions or ability to enforce racial supremacy. For instance, just because numeracy tests have been used to disenfranchise Black voters does not mean that those who discovered mathematical processes intended for their discovery to be used in the name of oppression, nor that the teaching of mathematics is fundamentally racist. This example illustrates both the gap in Pathway’s analysis and the objective falsehood in characterizing the teaching of math as a “tool of oppression.” Just because mathematical principles have been used in acts of oppression does not mean that the acts of oppression happened because of the way in which math was taught. Rather, “white supremacist, perfectionist” attitudes only relate to the teaching of mathematics when the individual learning the concept independently develops the intent to cause oppression. 

In general, this philosophy guiding both Pathway and school districts like Seattle’s is flawed for two reasons even in its vast ambiguity. First, on the issue of white supremacy culture embedded within the teaching of mathematics: both Pathway’s toolkit and the previously referenced school district equivocate between the specific instance of corrupt, oppressive structures instantiating white supremacy and the instance of emphasizing a right answer against a wrong answer. Put simply, mathematics distinguishes the value of an answer based on its factual and objective correctness. White supremacy distinguishes an individual’s value based on a fraudulent and fictional conception of race. Educators should be tasked with telling students the truth, and the truth is that the objective reasoning mathematics curriculum attempts to teach students stands in direct contradiction to the racist ideals that subjectively and fallaciously relate supremacy to race.     

Second, emphasizing that a student can be wrong in mathematics isn’t a nod to perfectionist attitudes. It is an acknowledgement that the student’s application of the rules has been misapplied. Regardless of teachers becoming less stringent about their students following their preferred procedures of “showing work” (not to mention that these same students will eventually be tasked with adapting to the rigorously defined procedures of professional industries), a student will either succeed or fail to quantify, measure, or solve a problem in any cultural context. Whether through call and response or dance, the only difference that exists from the educator’s perspective becomes how willing they are to admit a child made a mistake. 

But why is this an example of the left going too far in primary education reform? Aside from threatening to compromise the essential function of mathematics education, the text of Pathway’s toolkit itself is racist towards students coming from BIPOC communities. It presupposes that only non-white students fail to process math through the “western lens” because educators don’t honor alternative methods of processing math. By characterizing an entire, diverse community with a sweeping generalization of incapability, organizations like Pathway and the Seattle school district ultimately embolden false narratives of racial superiority. 

In all of their flaws, however, advocacy groups like Pathway are not without legitimate motivation. Since the 1960s, vast differences in tracked academic performance between BIPOC and white/Asian students have perpetuated a form of racial inequality across public schools because these tracking metrics are used to place students within or outside of K-12 gifted and talented programs. According to recent federal data, nearly 60 percent of gifted programs were constituted by white students that represent only 50 percent of the public school population, whereas a mere nine percent of black students were enrolled in gifted programs despite being 15 percent of the public school population. Increasingly in recent months, some of the nation’s prominent school districts have attempted to address this disparity, considering either reforming or abolishing gifted programs outright, so students within BIPOC communities aren’t continually cut off at the knees. 

Just last month, Brenda Cassellius, Boston’s school district superintendent, instituted a one-year hiatus on enrollment from the district’s long standing selective program for fourth, fifth, and sixth graders, citing the vast racial inequities produced by the program. Furthermore, this past summer, New York City mayor Bill de Blasio, commissioned an education panel to review the New York City School District’s gifted programs and entrance requirements. After review, the commission recommended a moratorium on all new gifted and talented programs, the phasing out of existing programs, and an end to the practice of measuring entrance into these programs via test scores, attendance, and grades. Despite reluctance from Mayor de Blasio to act on the commission’s recommendation, both its report and the decision by rogue public schools within the district to adopt the reforms rightfully address the impact of gifted programs on the degree of segregation in public education.  

Unlike baseless claims about embedded racism within mathematics curriculum, the left is directly on target in addressing these programs: scrutinizing the nation’s gifted and talented programs is fundamental to addressing racial inequality. Participation in these programs is directly correlated with a student’s access and participation in high level course work throughout K-12, and “the rigor of high school courses has been found to be the No. 1 predictor of college success”— not to mention college acceptance and attendance. Across the board, acceptance into gifted programs is based on a child’s performance on an entrance examination, amongst other considerations like lateness and grades, that is taken as early as four years of age. In order to qualify for gifted programs, children often have to score at or exceedingly higher than the 90th percentile. However, more affluent white/Asian parents can disproportionately outspend BIPOC families on resources such as tutors and educational supplements that give their children an advantage on these entrance exams. As a result, this disparity in early life resources between a majority of BIPOC and white/Asian children sets the stage for racially segregated classrooms and schools in perpetuity. 

School districts like New York’s have advocated replacing gifted and talented classes with enrichment programs that integrate students, tailor curriculum and student-instructor pairing to the individual skill sets and passions of students, and isolate opportunities for high achieving students to pursue more advanced materials. Advocates of this alternative argue it will increase the average performance of underprivileged students without inhibiting the growth of students that would have otherwise been placed in gifted programs. By tailoring entrance examinations to a student’s “motivation, curiosity, empathy, creativity and self-regulation,” education can become both individualized to the learner and success-optimizing based on the child’s skills and interests. But most studies report these enrichment programs having “produced uneven outcomes in terms of improved school test scores, and…little impact on school diversity.” 

Furthermore, the prospect of ending gifted programming has faced opposition outside and within BIPOC communities. Some BIPOC parents cite these programs as the mechanisms by which their children gain a real “shot at the elite education that can propel them into successful careers.” As former Deputy Assistant Director of Education, Andy Smarick, explains: the public and the individuals that collectively occupy it are at a loss when society fails to cultivate the potential of its highest achieving children. Longitudinal studies performed to measure the success of gifted programs on children’s post-secondary educational achievement confirm Smarick’s conclusions. While only 2% of Americans in the general population acquire a doctoral degree, 44% of the students enrolled in these studies received doctoral degrees

Despite the efficacy of these alternatives and the success of gifted programs, the left is making a point about gifted programs that the country needs to hear. The success of educational programs that promote high-achieving students is not enough when the distribution of that success is substantially unequal across races in America. However, the left is throwing the baby out with the bathwater by sacrificing the elements of these programs that lead to students’ future success under the guise of promoting equal outcomes, especially because a fair allocation of resources could make these programs the prophesied silver bullet that BIPOC communities have long awaited. By changing the methods commonly used to identify gifted students and redirecting Title I funding for underprivileged students in preparation for entrance exams into gifted programs, primary education can move closer to a reality of equal opportunity, while maintaining the mechanisms that are proven to maximize students’ potential. 

In the final analysis, the left and its more fringe elements are justified in trying to balance the playing field. But mathematics curriculums and gifted programs alike are complex systems. In other words, they influence many groups and produce many outcomes, so when primary education reform is debated, they must be represented in their most holistic forms. Otherwise, policymaking fails by treating complexity as a vice — by failing to account for trade offs and obscuring truth in the name of ideology. Ultimately, education is the business of guaranteeing all children an equal shot at self-actualization and success, but that “shot” falls out of focus when reforms dismiss what made it worthwhile in the first place.

Featured Image Source: New York Times

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