The Seattle public school system has developed a new initiative to teach math that’s causing a bit of controversy. Whether it will one day lead to perfect SAT scores remains to be seen, but that might be beside the point. Officially titled “Math Ethnic Studies,” the proposed scheme is known colloquially as “Woke Math.”
What is Woke Math?
Woke Math is a reference to the plan’s intention to tie the subject of mathematics to social issues, history and critical thinking, among other disciplines. Not surprisingly, it’s a controversial proposal and one which, in true mathematical fashion, receives equal parts criticism and compliments.
Boiled down, the basic premise is that math, when taught in a greater social, or even moral context, is more understandable than when taught as a stand-alone subject.
How One Teacher Used Woke Math in the Classroom
Colin Seale of Forbes.com explains the gist of the concept, “A middle school teacher used a social justice framework to give her students this conceptual understanding,” Seale wrote. “She taught at a middle school in the East Flatbush neighborhood of Brooklyn, NY.”
Seale continued, “After introducing the concept of average, she told a story about watching a 60 Minutes episode where they were interviewing a South African leader during the apartheid era. It seemed a little off-base at first. But she went on to explain that when the reporter asked a question about South Africa’s incredible income gap the government official defensively responded by explaining that the average South African income was one of the highest in the world.”
What happened next, Seale said, “Then she recalled the interviewer’s follow-up question that left the official speechless and caused a metaphysical change in every student in that classroom: ‘If one of your feet is a bucket of boiling water, and your other foot is in bucket of ice-cold water, on average, are you comfortable?’”
What Opponents Say
Somewhat predictably, the voices opposing this method are as loud as the ones supporting it. Katherine Timpf of National Review argued in an article about the move of Seattle’s public schools that the lessons are basically sound, they’re just being taught in the wrong classroom.
“The historical contributions of communities of color are important, and students should study them,” Timpf has said. “A better place to study them, though, would (quite obviously) be a history class, not a mathematics one. Mathematics classes should be for mathematics lessons; this is especially important considering the fact that math is exactly where American students (of all races) struggle compared to students in other countries.”
The initiative’s framework lays out the concept’s basic themes, target learners and “Essential Questions.” For example: one basic theme is “Power and Oppression,” which, according to the framework, “as defined by ethnic studies, are 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. This definition of legitimacy is then used to disenfranchise people and communities of color. This erases the historical contributions of people and communities of color.”
The framework’s theme seeks to answer questions such as, “Who is Smart? Who is not Smart?” and “Why/how does data-driven processes prevent liberation?”
How Woke Math Reaches Students
Some feel these questions are too esoteric and subjective to ever really be answered, while others, like Seale, think they might be the key to helping math learners, especially those who struggle with the subject.
“Even the student who is not a ‘math person’ can be compelled to care very deeply about underlying conceptual foundations of ratio and proportions when we apply it to the equity questions regarding the electoral college and the Founding Fathers’ grand compromise of giving every state equal representation in the United States Senate,” Seale wrote.
How Math is Stacking Up in US School Curriculums
Whatever your view about the initiative, it’s hard to look at student success rates in math and not think something needs to be done.
As Seale points out, “According to math scores in the 2019 nation’s report card, only 41% of 4th graders are proficient in math, and only 34% of 8th graders are.”
Seale added, “These numbers, which have not moved much since 2009 are dismal on their surface. Digging deeper, when these results are broken out by race and ethnicity, only 20% of Black and 26% of Hispanic students are proficient.”
To sum things up, Seale concluded, “These damning results show that something is clearly something wrong with math education in the United States.”
Woke Math — Sources
Colin Seale, Forbes.com: Seattle Public Schools’ Plan for Math And Social Justice Actually Adds Up
Katherine Timpf, National Review Online: Seattle Public Schools Want to Teach Social Justice in Math Class. That Hurts Minorities.
The Nation’s Report Card: National Achievement-Level Results
The Nation’s Report Card: Explore Results for the 2019 NAEP Mathematics Assessment