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How ‘Woke Math’ is Infiltrating the California School System

A proposed math curriculum seeks to introduce social justice language to math in California, including talks of inequity and racial bias

 A group of more than 900 scientists, mathematicians, university professors, and concerned parties have signed a letter denouncing the new mathematic curriculum of California, which some have criticized as woke math. The letter, which includes three Nobel Prize recipients, says that the proposed curriculum could sparkle “unintended consequences” that would do more harm than good.

The signers of the letter argue that the proposed curriculum is trying to reduce the achievement gaps among California students by limiting the availability of advanced math classes to kids in middle and high school.

The letter also criticizes the state curriculum proposals for trying to impose drastic changes across the board based on very little evidence, accusing such decisions as irresponsible and saying that proposing trendy but superficial courses will cause terrible damage to the future of STEM achievement.

The California Mathematics Framework is making the controversial proposal to “de-track” the math courses (mixing high-achieving students with low-achieving students); delay the teaching of algebra to 9th grade; minimize the importance of calculus; push back against the idea of naturally gifted students, and introduce social justice concepts in math.

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California’s new mathematics curriculum has faced stiff opposition (Image: EFE)

Is the new California curriculum proposing Woke math?

The controversy over the curriculum is not only based on the way math is taught, but also over the way the guidelines appear to push political concepts in math. During the summer of 2020, over a thousand professionals signed another open letter criticizing the curriculum for introducing political concepts to math.

The first draft of the CMF makes heavy use of words that many consider “woke” language. The curriculum has a disclaimer that the use of “non-binary, singular pronouns” is intentional. In the introduction, the CMF argues that “the subject and community of mathematics has a history of exclusion and filtering, rather than inclusion and welcoming” and that “messages students receive about who belongs in mathematics are biased along racial, socioeconomic status, language, and gender lines, a fact that has led to considerable inequities in mathematics.”

The words “equity” and “inequity” are mentioned at least nine times in the first chapter of the curriculum, while two of the works cited for the chapter also touch on the issue of equity in schools.

The curriculum also dedicates an entire chapter to “teaching equity for equity and engagement” with a subsection titled “Teach towards social justice”, where it argues that “Mathematics has traditionally been viewed as a neutral discipline, which has occluded possibilities for students to develop more personal and powerful relationships to mathematics (…) teachers can take a justice-oriented perspective at any grade level, K-12, helping students feel belonging.”

The proposed curriculum dedicates an entire chapter on how to fight social inequities through maths (Image:EFE)

The chapter also builds on the previous conclusion that math has become inequitable and recommends teachers to “work consciously to counter racialized or gendered ideas about mathematic achievement”. Curiously, the scholarly work the curriculum references in this paragraph is titled “Rethinking teaching and learning mathematics for social justice from a critical race perspective.”

This chapter also recommends that “Mathematics educators committed to social justice also work to both raise awareness of the ways textbook examples exclude and stereotype certain students (…) and to provide curricular examples that equip students with a tool kit and mindset to combat inequities with mathematics.”

Some of the examples recommended by the curriculum are to “data visualizations to show food availability for different communities, analyzing the ethnicities of different math tracks in high school, looking at the ways gun violence affects children, modeling border policies, considering the nature of safe water to drink, and celebrating black mathematicians”. Interestingly, the curriculum also referencing “critical math education.”

Critical math education was first coined by Marilyn Frankenstein in 1983, who argued that “traditional mathematic education supports the hegemonic ideologies of society” and that “critical math education can challenge students to question these hegemonic ideologies by using statistics to reveal the contradictions (and lies) underneath the surface of these ideologies”, the latter is precisely what the CMF recommends California teachers to use in their class.

The entire proposed curriculum of California math seems to be very inspired by the theoretical idea of Critical Math Education, it is very concerned about perceived social inequalities, and it pushes social justice as something that math teachers should pursue in class.  Whether that approach would actually improve the mathematical knowledge of California students, however, remains a mystery.

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