Radical Math in the NYC Department of Education

Sol Stern:

Late last month, over 400 high school math teachers and education professors gathered in Brooklyn for a three-day conference, titled “Creating Balance in an Unjust World: Math Education and Social Justice.” Prominently displayed on the official program’s first page was a passage from Paulo Freire, the Brazilian Marxist educator and icon of the teaching-for-social-justice movement: “There is no such thing as a neutral education process. Education either functions as an instrument which is used to . . . bring about conformity or it becomes the practice of freedom, the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of our world.”
The conference’s organizers left nothing to the imagination about their leftist agenda. At many of the conference’s 28 workshops, math teachers proudly demonstrated how they used classroom projects to train students in seeing social problems from a radical anticapitalist perspective. At a plenary session, Professor Marilyn Frankenstein of the University of Massachusetts’ math education department proclaimed that elementary school teachers should not use traditional math lessons, in which students calculate, say, the cost of food. Rather, the teachers should make clear that in a truly “just society,” food would “be as free as breathing the air.”
New York City’s Department of Education insists that the radical math conference was perfectly appropriate. In fact, as I recently learned, the whole affair got rolling with the assistance of the DOE, which gave a financial grant to the conference’s principal organizer, Jonathan Osler. Osler is a math teacher at El Puente Academy, a small “social-justice” high school in Brooklyn. In 2005, he and two math teachers from other schools applied for the DOE’s Zone Teacher Inquiry Grants Program. Their application proposed “the creation of a system to bring together NYC math teachers to share ideas, curriculum, resources, and experiences integrating issues of social justice into math classes.” Some of the social justice issues that math classes could explore: “Check-cashing locations ripping off poor people. H&R Block and Jackson Hewitt ripping off poor people. Foreclosure agencies ripping off poor people. Issues of joblessness, homelessness, incarceration, lack of funding for education, excessive funding for war. . . . The list goes on and on.”

2 thoughts on “Radical Math in the NYC Department of Education”

  1. This is absolutely alarming! But, wait, let’s actually look at some of this “radical” social justice curricula.
    Who’s Being Left Behind? John R. Troutman, Wake Forest University
    Exploring the racial achievement gap on standardized tests
    Social Justice Goals: Students will consider commonly reported standardized test statistics and think about some of the institutional causes of these problems.
    Course level: Recommended: Discrete Math
    Portions applicable to: Algebra I, Algebra II, Advance Functions and Modeling
    Who’s Being Left Behind?
    Exploring the racial achievement gap on standardized tests
    Social justice motivation:
    “One of the state’s most prestigious high schools, East Chapel Hill High, failed federal testing standards this year. Only 20 percent of East’s black students passed an end-of-course reading exam, compared with the goal of 35 percent set by the federal No Child Left Behind testing program. Likewise, 54 percent of black students passed the math exam, compared with the goal of 71 percent.” “East Chapel Hill fails U.S. goals”, The News and Observer, July 23, 2005
    In the No Child Left Behind era, communities are inundated with statistics like the ones above. Without a proper understanding of standardized testing methods, statistical reports, and the social contexts that have produced these results, reports such as this one can have damaging impact on students’ self concepts.
    Introduction: You may want to provide some background for the lesson by discussing two important characteristics of End of Course Tests.
    • These tests are “norm referenced. You many want to explain this concept using the “normal-curve” (see below for an example). This kind of test score is problematic for two reasons: 1) With a normal curve, it is impossible for all students to pass the test. 2) In order to spread scores out across the normal curve, test-makers intentionally include questions on these exams that they think a high percentage of the students taking the test will get wrong. This means that norm-referenced tests are less likely to ask about the basic skills that students need to understand a subject, because these questions would be answered correctly by too many of the students.
    • Secondly, the EOC’s are “achievement tests” not “aptitude tests”. They are (in theory) not meant to test “how smart” a student is, but how much she/he has learned over the course of the semester. This characteristic of the tests means that it is inappropriate to hold students solely responsible for their results on these tests because research has shown that many factors out of the students’ control can affect how much they learn in a given course (i.e. quality of instructional materials, quality of instruction, length of time in the course, the structure of the course, etc.).
    One of the question and answer pairs:
    8. An investigative reporter learns from an anonymous government official that individual African-American students received the highest scores on 10 of the 11 End of Course tests in the 2003-2004 school year. Based on this information, she publishes a story saying the scores of students from that year must have been misreported. Is the reporter justified in forming this conclusion? Why or why not?
    8. No, the reporter would not be justified in making such a claim. First of all, students’ actual scores are not factored into this statistic, since it only looks at the numbers of student who passed the test. A student who got all the responses correct would (for the purposes of this statistic) be no different than a student who barely passed the exam. Additionally (and perhaps more importantly in terms of the conversation around test scores with high school students), since so many students took the test it is a fallacy to think that you could use these tests to predict the performance of individual students. In reality, there are thousands of students in each lower achieving racial group who perform much better than White and Asian American students, additionally thousands of students in higher achieving racial groups score much worse than most African Americans,
    Latino/as, or Native Americans.
    Whether labeled “social justice” curriculum or otherwise, this coverage is well worth knowing.
    Gee, imagine if MMSD administration understood this material and Board members understood, how much better off we’d be in making real progress in educating our kids.

  2. More “radical” social justice math:
    Playing Mathematics and Doing Music
    Renaissance Banff, July 31 to August 3, 2005
    Banff Centre, Banff, Alberta
    Pulse refers to the steady, underlying beat that organizes most of the music that we are used to hearing. Pulse is what we feel that allows us to clap, to pat our feet, to dance, and, generally, to feel securely connected to a piece of music.
    Subpulse is the manner in which a pulse is subdivided. It organizes the “space” between pulse beats; it is an aspect of what gives music from different genres and traditions their distinct personalities.
    Cycle influences how we hear music “phrases”. If/when we count to music, it tells us where to say “one” and how high to count before returning to the one.
    Harmonic rhythm refers to a phenomenon, sometimes called “polyrhythm” that exists in many African and African Diasporic music traditions. Harmonic rhythm awareness enables feeling and playing with rhythmic movement, the manner in which layered, repetitive phrases of different pulses, subpulses, and/or cycles are felt and heard differently as they move from and to the stable “home” position, which is a rhythmic analogue to the tonal center.
    The authors then precede to discuss 1-cycle, 2-cycle, 4-cycle w/3-cycle, and the combinatorial mathematics and its relation to Pascal’s triangle, then “Prime-al” Rhythms, the concepts of relative primes, and the solution of a system of congruence equations, the Chinese remainder theorem, ending with this interesting solution to a set of congruence equations:
    x = 5 (mod 7), x = 0 (mod 3), x= 1(mod5), x=2(mod4).
    The solution?
    “Musically, this means if the 7, 3, 5, and 4 beat cycles are begun simultaneously, the desired alignment occurs on beat 306, with subsequent alignments occurring every 420 beats.”
    We should all partake of this radical math.

Comments are closed.