Training Antiracist Math Teachers?

Problem solving that doesn’t solve the problem

In 2019 the Brookings Institute published a report called: The Rise of Black-Majority Cities. It pointed out in 1970 there were 470 black-majority cities and by 2010 there were 1,148.

In 2015, the US News & World Report revealed, nationally “only 18 percent of African-American fourth-graders were proficient in reading and only 19 percent scored as proficient in math … The eighth-grade numbers were even worse, with only 16 percent of African-American students proficient in reading and 13 percent in math … By comparison the national average for proficiency among all students in fourth-grade reading was 36 percent, while it was 40 percent in fourth-grade math, 34 percent in eighth-grade reading and 33 percent in eighth-grade math.”

Globally, these numbers are awful.

The 2015 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) ranked the U.S. 38th out of 71 countries, and out of the 35 industrialized nations that are members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the U.S. ranked in the bottom 15 percent at number 31. To compound matters, American student’s math scores haven’t improved. The PISA is given every three years and American math scores have declined in 2012 and 2015.

Normally, when black underachievement is discovered the automatic response is to blame the disparities on systemic racism. But where were the most egregious examples of black underperformance, in white-majority cities or in black-majority cities?

Here are two headlines from 2017 and 2018 featuring black-majority cities.

1). 13 Baltimore city high schools have zero students proficient in math

2). Detroit schools score lowest in the nation in reading and mathematics

The subtitle of the second headline was, “Detroit students score lower than 26 other urban districts.” Obviously, the scores of the other 26 urban districts were nothing to brag about, but to blame it all on systemic racism is a hard sell.

However, Andreas Schleicher, the director of education and skills at the OECD, claimed the problem is with how math is taught in the United States. Schleicher stated that the higher-ranking industrialized nations teach fewer subjects but go deeper. This depth leads to greater retention and greater ability to apply knowledge. Schleicher also stated, students in the United States are often good at answering the first layer of a problem, but as soon as U.S. students have to go deeper and answer the more complex part of a problem, they experience difficulties.

Education experts agree teachers need to stop expecting students to learn the same way and at the same speed. However, when it comes to improving the math scores of black students, there’s another group of experts that believe teachers need to be taught to reflect on their own biases in order to transform their ability to teach black students. These experts created an 80-page antiracist instruction manual for teachers called: A Pathway to Equitable Math Instruction, Dismantling Racism in Mathematics Instruction.

This antiracist teacher’s manual states its purpose is to provide “critical approaches to dismantling white supremacy in math classrooms by visualizing the toxic characteristics of white supremacy culture with respect to math.” According to the manual white supremacy shows up in the math classroom in over a dozen ways. Here are a few examples.

1). Focusing on getting the “right” answer. The manual explains: The concept of mathematics being purely objective is unequivocally false. This upholds the idea there is always a right and wrong answer perpetuating objectivity. Therefore: Objectivity is a racist idea.

2). Independent work is valued over teamwork. The manual explains: There is some value in students completing work independently but it reinforces individualism. Therefore: Individualism is a racist idea.

3). Teachers are teachers and students are students. The manual explains: If the student has a different approach to math, the teacher views the student as a threat to the power structure of the classroom. This reinforces paternalism, which is racist.

When Schleicher claimed the problem in the United States is how math is taught. I don’t think he meant America needs to train antiracist teachers to rid mathematics of white supremacy in order to improve black test scores.

J. Pharoah Doss is a columnist for the New Pittsburgh Courier.

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