OP-ED: Race, Inequality and Math Education




New international education performance reports came out in December, indicating that U.S. students once again show less math knowledge that students in other developed countries.


How can we explain this? Why is the richest country in the world unable to teach its youngsters math? 

In this article I look first at the explanations provided by academics. And then I interview an urban math teacher.


The test on which the information is based is called the Programme for International Student Assessment. It is different from the usual, overused American standardized test. It is only given to 15 year old students as they are nearing the end of compulsory education, and it tests only a representative sampling of students in each of the 70 countries which are involved. Thus it cannot be used to embarrass or shame individual students or teachers, and it does not take time from the curriculum.


One possible explanation for U.S. performance lies in the fact that an ever larger portion of U.S. education spending is driven by business interests and business logic. Market oriented systems do not do as well as systems like Canada, Cuba and Finland which are completely public and where profit is not a motive.


Stanford Professor Martin Carnoy makes a second and related argument. He says the problem is actually that low income kids in all countries do poorly, and the U.S. has vastly more low-income kids than any of the comparable countries. Thus, the biggest US problem is not education itself, but massive inequality which leads in circular fashion to worse education.


U.S. students reported more absences than students in other countries and student absence is also correlated to poor performance and to socioeconomics.


Finally an important area of research on math education is coming from a group of academics who are applying the understanding that race impacts every aspect of American life. Dr. D.B. Martin, in his book called Mathematics Teaching, Learning, and Liberation in the Lives of Black Children, points out that mathematics research is a “white institutional space’


While there is lots of talk about race and test scores there is almost no inclusion of the insights of African-American adults in the education of African-American youth.


And much of the conversation is counterproductive, further marginalizing the students. When you talk about lower test scores and you don’t mention racism as a factor, children are inclined to think the problem is them.


Joe Lynch is an elementary teacher in East Oakland, teaching a class of African-American and Latino students. His students have consistently done better in math performance than other classes in his “network,” a geographical portion of the school district. Based on the success of his students, Joe has been asked to consult with other teachers. In my conversation with him he mentioned a number of factors creating his students’ relative success.



First, he has enthusiasm for math and this catches on with the students. Second, he has a“relational” and relevant approach. He lives in the community, grew up in Oakland, and he “makes the math content part of the students’ lives.” Third, he utilizes the oral tradition of the African-American community. His students “talk through” problems, explaining orally what is being asked, talking with each other about how to approach the problem, and then describing the solutions. Students are not working in isolation. Fourth, the assumption that urban students have particular background knowledge expected by the Common Core approach is not necessarily true, according to Joe, and they need some direct instruction in basic math facts.


Finally, Joe mentions how few African-American men are present in classrooms, even in Oakland, and this is especially problematic given recent research by Hua Sebastian Cherng indicating that Black and Latino teachers are found most effective by students of all ethnicities.


Until we end inequity in U.S. society, our children’s education will continue to suffer, and, at the same time, individual dedicated teachers like Joe Lynch will continue to make a difference in the lives of children.


PISA test information and sample questions http://www.oecd.org/pisa/


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