California Is Planning to ‘De-Mathematize Math.’ It Will Hurt the Vulnerable Most of All

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The spotlight is once again on the State of California and its proposed new mathematics framework for grades K-12. The proposed framework would “de-mathematize math” and encourage the use of a “trauma-informed pedagogy,” as an open letter to Governor Gavin Newsom signed by more than 900 professors of math and science from across California put it. The framework also rejects the idea of natural or innate giftedness among children and discourages allowing students to be placed into accelerated courses even if they have mastered the material covered in the course.

And it would be a disaster.

No doubt, this effort to level the playing field stems from a noble desire. Learning to “solve the problems that result in societal inequities” is important. But the fact is, replacing the teaching of actual math with lessons or pedagogies grounded in the work of social justice is an injustice; it’s not justice to force students of vastly different mathematical or other learning capabilities to consume the same material in the same way when we know that learning needs differ from child to child.

Focusing on the differences we can see—like race—and pretending the ones we can’t see—like brains that learn differently—don’t exist is intellectually dishonest. And it certainly isn’t justice to take from all children, especially those of racially and socioeconomically marginalized communities, the opportunity to be recognized for their unique abilities and given the chance to receive “gifted” or advanced learning classes. Pretending no child has innate gifts only reinforces racial and socioeconomic achievement gaps and will have disastrous effects in the long term.

The short-term goal may be to address the disparity in the number of Black and Latino students in gifted programs or accelerated math courses compared to white or Asian students (in CA from 2004-2014, 32 percent of Asian students were in gifted programs compared with 8 percent of white students, 4 percent of Black students, and 3 percent of Latino students), but the long-term consequence is that children from wealthy families will continue to thrive, while children from families that cannot afford to, say, put their children into mathematical enrichment programs like the Russian School of Math, will be sabotaged.

Given that California has historically led the way for the rest of the country when it comes to educational approaches, it’s something that all of us should be watching closely. Still, California is not the first to suggest that “gifted” programs are inherently racist. Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York City attempted to do away with admission exams for the most elite high schools earlier this year, and announced his intention to phase out gifted and talented programs, which critics say have contributed to racially segregated classrooms (75 percent of the approximately 16,000 students in NYC gifted elementary school classes are white or Asian American).

Monica Osborne. | Contributed Photo.

But the question of how to close this gap and de-segregate classrooms is not answered by obliterating opportunities for children who demonstrate a legitimate need for accelerated learning. Doing away with accelerated courses or programs in the name of racial justice is insulting to communities of color; it implies that Black children do not have the intellect or drive necessary to enroll in these programs. And that simply isn’t true. It’s an inherently racist lie. A growing number of Black and Latino parents have in fact sought out gifted classes “as an alternative to the city’s struggling district schools.” But it’s easier to destroy gifted programs than it is to do the real work of building better public schools for all children. We like band-aids as opposed to brain surgeries.

Along with the coastal elites, cities from Seattle to Chicago to Boston are also embroiled in these battles, with some fighting for overhauls to gifted programs but most opting to banish them. This is a huge mistake. Instead, we should be asking why gifted programs and testing are less frequently offered in schools in lower-income areas. We know that wealthier, more educated families are more likely to seek out advanced learning opportunities for their children, and especially more apt to seek out testing if they think their child may be gifted in a particular area. But for those from communities where parents often work two jobs to make ends meet and may not have gone to college themselves, seeking out testing for academic giftedness is not even on the radar, let alone a priority. And what about children whose parents do not speak English well or at all? Here’s the problem that is much more difficult to solve: How can we make these opportunities more readily available for families that may not even know to look for them?

Fortunately NYC mayor-elect Eric Adams has rejected calls to destroy gifted programs, advocating instead that they be expanded into low-income neighborhoods. One hopes that this approach will become pervasive. But the question of how to do this, in a time when it’s easier and more “woke” to dismantle gifted programs and then celebrate how progressive we are, remains the more crucial one.

And yet, when math and objective learning are displaced by the rhetoric of politics and power, the people who will suffer most are those the efforts purport to help most. Differences abound in humans, whether it’s race, culture, religion, socioeconomic status, one- or two-parent households, genetics, athletic or intellectual ability, and so on. Some of these factors will be advantages, while others may be hindrances. But pretending that differences don’t factor in to how children learn in the name of equity is disgraceful.

Monica Osborne is a former professor of literature, film, and trauma studies. She is Editor-at-Large at The Jewish Journal and is the author of The Midrashic Impulse and the Contemporary Literary Response to Trauma. Follow her on Twitter: @DrMonicaOsborne.

MONICA OSBORNE | Contributed

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