The racial lens blocks vision


Angry student: “Why do I have to learn algebra? I’m only going to be teaching eight year olds!”

Me: “Because the parents of eight year olds want their teachers to know more than an eight year old.”

–I used to get Education majors quite often in my math courses, before they became cloistered into special “Math for Education Majors” courses. I heard complaints similar to the above many, many times.

As I sit recovering from yet another crushing surgery (13 new surgical scars since last September, if anyone’s counting), a reader sent me an article from 2005. So, it’s dated, but highlights how looking at everything through a racist perspective makes it impossible to see the truth. The author of the articles certainly notes the problems I’ve identified time and again…but perpetually misses the issue:

Racial Equity Requires Teaching Elementary School Teachers More Mathematics —-Patricia Clark Kenschaft

I can’t believe I’m actually saying an article with “Racial Equity” in the title actually has many good observations in it…but it does. Offsetting my shame is how the author doesn’t realize the value of what she sees. Let’s get started.

So the author asks black people with degrees in mathematics what can be done to fix the “under-representation” (citation needed by the article, none given) of blacks in mathematics, and one answer comes back strongly:

“Teach mathematics better to all American children. The way it is now, if children don’t learn mathematics at home, they don’t learn it at all, so any ethnic group that is underrepresented in mathematics will remain so until children are taught mathematics better in elementary school.”

The author is a math teacher herself, and understands the above to mean that children aren’t being taught mathematics well in elementary school. Being in math, and not in Education, she addresses the problem in the obvious way: going to the elementary schools and seeing with her own eyes. She spoke to actual elementary school teachers:

I have found them eager and quick to learn—and appallingly ignorant of the most basic mathematics.

Appallingly ignorant. Gosh, that’s a clear observation. Why couldn’t the author ask how it was so that the teachers were appallingly ignorant of what they were supposedly teaching children? The teachers had real college degrees, after all, in Education.

One study of nine hundred Texas school districts revealed that the large disparities in achievement between black and white students were almost entirely accounted for by socioeconomic status and differences in the measurable qualifications of their teachers.

Yes, the qualifications of those teachers. Namely, teachers with Education degrees are suspect (there can be some good ones, though), while teachers with degrees in actual subject matter are far less so (there are some bad ones, of course). It’s a shame the author didn’t narrow down the qualifications along obvious lines, and instead chose to be blinded by racial concerns.

Now, teachers aren’t hired racially (bear with me), so where is the racial inequality coming from? The author smashes her toe into it, and limps on without being curious why she was limping:

It has been my observation that the reason that scores are higher in white districts is that some parents teach their children mathematics at home, and these children teach many of the others. It has appeared to me that the teachers are no better prepared in the high-scoring districts.

So, the “white districts” have the same fake Educationist teachers as elsewhere, but the parents who knew what was going on, at least before Common Core, could go around the teachers and just teach the material to their own kids, and the kids who weren’t lucky enough to have such parents could learn from friends who did. Common Core, by utterly warping how mathematics is taught, will destroy this option for parents (by design?).

But the issue here isn’t the racial inequality, it’s that there was a way around the terrible Education teachers. She demonstrates just how little these teachers know by quizzing them:

…I asked the question again. “What is the area of a rectangle that is x by y?”

The teachers were very friendly people, and they know how frustrating it can be when no student answers a question. “x plus y?” said two in the front simultaneously. “What?!!!” I said, horrified. Then all fifty of them shouted together, “x plus y.”

I have a similar anecdote. Even if I didn’t, the above rings very true for me, as I had some friends, one a valedictorian high school graduate, call me to ask their “math expert” friend about the area of a rectangular piece of real estate they were looking at…they weren’t sure how to do it, but knew the length and width, figuring (rightly) it would be helpful information.

Time and again she sees with her own eyes why the students aren’t learning math: the teachers don’t know any math. And time and again she ties it to racism.

Educationist: “We’re offering a new math course, taking out the math they don’t need, like squares and rectangles.”

–I’m serious, the course was proposed and offered.

It’s the ignorance, honest. So ask the dang question already: how are these people who are ignorant becoming qualified to become teachers?

The author does the right thing again, however, and verifies herself that the kids can learn, by doing the teaching herself.

Its principal invited me to consider that school “my school”. He and the teachers really wanted to help the students. Its students had a median achievement in mathematics of about the 25th percentile on the “Iowas”, one of the lowest levels in Newark. I am now convinced that its rank was due to the fact that the principal did not pressure the teachers to cheat in any way on standardized tests. When I told him this years later, his eyes widened. He was president of the principals’ union. “What? You are saying…” I nodded. Since then I have read numerous reports of systemic cheating on standardized tests and other forms of deception by school administrators,….

–while not the focus of this article, I remind the gentle reader that the fraud going on in standardized testing in public schools is massive, and not restricted to Newark. There’s a reason why the bureaucrats want those standardized tests: they’re very easy to cheat on.

Since she knows what she’s doing, she’s successful as a teacher. She teaches the kids subtraction…it only takes a few minutes, but they’d never been exposed to the concept at such a young age before, because the usual teacher was a bit shaky on the subject.

…half the children passed the subtraction part of the November standardized test—without any reinforcement from her. [The usual teacher] had never had a child pass it before. The crucial role of mathematical knowledge on the part of the teacher was becoming obvious to me…

Obvious, yes, but then the author gets distracted yet again:

The children were all African American. The school is in one of the worst neighborhoods of our country’s poorest city. There were no greens growing within a block of the school…

Yes, certainly, poverty and quality of life are issues but…it’s about the teachers, like the author just observed before looking through the racial lens, who must get college degrees to teach, and get those degrees not in an academic subject but instead in Education.

Admin: “Congratulations to the Education Department, for once again having the highest retention rates and highest GPAs on campus, as well as the greatest growth over all our departments.”

–I saw similar kudos and awards from admin many times when I was at a state university. Admin never thinks twice how their awards system really isn’t helping education. The growth, incidentally, was because every student flunking out in every other major was being herded into the “easy A” Education programs. I don’t want our students to fail but…should our teachers really be the weakest academics we can get?

It isn’t simply that the teachers we’re putting in the schools are too weak to teach subtraction, even addition is a confusing topic for them:

“In 1999 U.S. cars achieved an average of 28.11 mpg, but light trucks were rated a mere 20.3 mpg. Their mileage was 23.8 mpg altogether. What proportion of American vehicles were light trucks in 1999?”

Answer by the teacher of your children: “‘Altogether’ means add, so the mileage altogether must be 48.41 miles per gallon.”

I tried to explain but to no avail…

Seriously, by tying the problem to racism, a huge issue is being overlooked: the children can’t possibly learn from these people. Skin color is irrelevant.

Rather than focus on how Education departments, in the name of growth, have lowered standards and reduced requirements so that someone completely ignorant of math can teach children math, the author keeps going back to racism with a bit of virtue-signalling:

My own interest in elementary school mathematics education grew out of my equity concerns. Ever since my great-great-grandfather came north from a slave-holding family to fight on the Northern side of the Civil War, my family has been active in race relations…

I grant that slavery indirectly forced black parents to rely on our flawed education system to learn what the white parents learned but…how about we stop talking about the Civil War and start identifying real problems with our critically flawed Education departments and, vastly more importantly, fixing them?

I propose stopping with the failed Education degree idea. Start hiring teachers with actual subject knowledge, instead of, at best, the focus on ideology which an Education degree offers. Instead of this simple approach, the author, blinded by the lens of racism, proposes other actions instead:

1. Structural Change: The mathematical communities need to collaborate with anyone else who will join the effort to lobby strenuously for the need for radically improved teacher knowledge. The major argument is that while once only a few people (white men?)…

I’ll just stop at the suggestion of white men being the issue. Yes, we need radically improved teacher knowledge. We can do so easily in my one step solution.

2. Individual Actions: Those who teach in institutions that certify elementary school teachers can work to make sure adequate specific courses are provided for them…

Um…those “adequate specific courses” are already provided in the math departments. Education departments got rid of them, replacing with ideology and “math for education majors” courses. Again, my one stop solution would not require individual action, just common sense.

3. Remedial Work: Until the current cohort of elementary school teachers retire, the mathematical competence of today’s children will require that their teachers receive continual remedial programs.

Oh, no, not more remediation. That’s a disaster, too. I do concede that many of our current teachers are simply untrained (but absolutely degreed!), but having seen the immense failure of remediation in college, I just do not think we need to double down on failure.

Do the suggestions even stop here? No, the list…

is far from an exhaustive list of either people or activities; it merely indicates examples of good beginnings.

Yes, we could do all that, and after a decade a more we’ll get nowhere. Alternatively, start hiring subject degree’d people to teach subjects, and watch as, which will be a surprise to Educationists, the kids actually learn the subject, instead of our current system where the teachers are only trained in Education, and thus so incompetent that generally the best a school can hope for is to commit fraud on the standardized tests.

Anyone looking at today’s system can see how easy the solution is, just as this article, from over a decade ago, could have easily seen the problem and solution.

Or could if it didn’t keep trying to tie racism into everything.