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Seattle Public Schools Teaching ‘Math Ethnic Studies,’ Asks, ‘Who Gets To Say If An Answer Is Right?’

By  Ashe Schow
Two year old girl holding chalk pointing at a blackboard
Geri Lavrov via Getty Images

Math, in case you didn’t already know, is racist.

That appears to be the contention of Seattle Public Schools, which has offered a course for K-12 students titled “Math Ethnic Studies.” The framework for the class lists multiple themes, what students will learn from those themes, and important questions to be asked.

Origins, Identity, and Agency

The first theme, “Origins, Identity, and Agency,” is defined as “the ways in which we view ourselves as mathematicians and members of broader mathematical communities.”

“Mathematical theory and application is rooted in the ancient histories of people and empires of color. All human endeavors include mathematical thinking; from humanities to the arts to the sciences,” the framework continues.

The “learning targets” for this theme start off without a hitch, suggesting students taking the class will be able to “identify ancient mathematicians and their contributions to mathematics” and “know the continents and countries that were and are at the core of the development of mathematics.” Math history doesn’t seem so bad.

But then the course starts to go off the rails. Under “essential questions” students are asked the following questions, among others:

“What is my mathematical identity”

“How does it feel to be a Mathematician”

“What other mathematicians are in my learning community?”

“Is there an authority for math knowledge?”

“What stories are important to your cultural connection to mathematics?”

“What does it mean to do math?”

“How important is it to be Right? What is Right? Says Who?”

Power and Oppression

Yes, Seattle has determined that such terms exist in addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division. The theme is defined as “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 continues.

The “learning targets” for this themes state that students will be able to “analyze the ways in which ancient mathematical knowledge has been appropriated by Western culture” and to identify and explain how math and other sciences have been “used to oppress and marginalize people and communities of color.”

Further, students will be able to “critique systems of power that deny access to mathematical knowledge to people and communities of color,” “identify the inherent inequities of the standardized testing system used to oppress and marginalize people and communities of color,” “explain how math has been used to exploit natural resources,” and “explain how math dictates economic oppression.”

A lengthy list of “essential questions” for this theme include the following:

“Who holds power in a mathematical classroom?”

“Is there a place for power and authority in the math classroom?”

“Who gets to say if an answer is right?”

“Who is Smart? Who is not Smart?”

“Can you recognize and name oppressive mathematical practices in your experience?”

“Why/how does data-driven processes prevent liberation?”

“How is math manipulated to allow inequality and oppression to persist?”

History of Resistance and Liberation

Keep in mind, all of these themes are “defined by ethnic studies” and applied to numbers and formulas. This theme is defined as: “the stories, places, and people who helped liberate people and communities of color using math, engineering, and technology. Access to mathematical knowledge itself is an act of liberation.”

Not so bad, teaching that math and technology has helped build up civilizations. If only it weren’t couched in a class claiming that same “liberation” is also racist.

This theme states that students will be able to “identify individuals and organizations that have reclaimed mathematical identity and agency.” It also includes praise for higher graduation rates of people of color, which should obviously be celebrated and is one of the few bright spots of the framework.

But again, the framework diverges from what could be an interesting class about the history of math and how technology has helped the world to using math in order to aid racial activism. From the list of essential questions:

“How/why do mathematical processes demand collective thinking?

“How can we change mathematics from individualistic to collectivist thinking?”

“How can we reframe our views of people/communities of color in mathematics?”

Reflection and Action

Ah yes, what “[Blank] Studies” program wouldn’t include a call for activism from minors? This theme is defined as “fostering a sense of advocacy, empowerment, and action in the students that creates internal motivation to engage in and contribute to their identities as mathematicians.”

“Students will be confident in their ability to construct & decode mathematical knowledge, truth, and beauty so they can contribute to their experiences and the experiences of people in their community,” the framework continues.

Learning targets for this section include students valuing “their mathematical identity” and the “potential that math can have on their freedom.”

Essential questions for this theme include:

“What validates (y)our mathematical thinking?”

“Can you advocate against oppressive mathematical practices?”

“How can our stories be valued as data points to impact change?”

“Can I use mathematics to comprehend my everyday life?”

Dori Monson, a Seattle-based radio host, penned an op-ed about the framework, calling it “absolute insanity.”

“This is what happens when you allow radicals to take control of the schools. You start seeing problems where they cannot exist — like in the objective world of mathematics,” Monson wrote. “We’re now reducing math to a divisive sociological issue — and that’s the kind of reduction and division we don’t want to be teaching.”

Radio host Jason Rantz added in his own op-ed that educators aren’t stopping at injecting math with social justice themes. History classes have also been revised to insist “the United States government was founded on racist intellectual premises and economic practices that institutionalized oppression of people of color that continues to the present day.”

Rantz included a statement from Kate Payne, Director of Communications for the Superintendent’s Office.

In creating a state-level framework and recommended resources, we hope to provide guidance to districts implementing Ethnic Studies as part of their class offerings. Again, the Committee has not yet created any documents, nor have they made any recommendations,” Payne said. “They are in the process of gathering information about current practices and deciding on the best course of action to ensure our students and educators receive appropriate support. This is an elective class offering, and there are no requirements that school districts offer Elective Studies courses at this time.”

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