The New, political math

Speaking at a March 2014 Network for Public Education conference in Texas, Chicago Teachers Union president Karen Lewis says: “You want to talk about organizing? You want to talk about social justice? Can I just use a Bob Peterson story – a quick one?  People always talk about how that there’s no politics and values in math. That you can teach math and there’s no place for social justice.  So let me tell you how Bob deals with that. Everyone has seen that story problem that says: Johnny has five pencils and if he spent two cents for the red pencils and eight cents for the green pencils and he’s got forty-seven cents, how many pencils can he buy?  We’ve all seen that, right?  That’s a very political statement because it’s all about consumerism – it’s about buying stuff, right?”  
 
The social justice approach, she says, is to tell the children instead about “José working in a factory making piecemeal [sic] clothes. He uses the same numbers and gets the same answer. And yes, math is political, too.  This is about: don’t fall for the okey-dok.  Don’t let people tell you there’s one way to do anything.”[i]
 
Leaving aside the fact that this problem, whether it concerns Johnny’s pencils or José’s piecework, has four possible correct answers – if it is given that there will be money left over and that as much of the forty-seven cents will be accounted for as possible – this is no less a word problem about consumerism because José is selling what he has made rather than buying pencils made by someone else.   Lewis isn’t really talking about “social justice” math but about putting math into a cultural context.
 
That’s pretty easy to swallow.
 
However, the work she cites by Bob Peterson isn’t so benign.   Peterson coauthored “Rethinking Mathematics: Teaching Social Justice by the Numbers” with Eric Gutstein.   “Rethinking Mathematics” is a collection of articles that attempt to give teachers the tools with which they can “weave social justice issues throughout the mathematics curriculum …. Deepen[ing] students understanding of society and prepare them to be critical, active participants in a democracy. Blending theory and practice, this is the only resource of its kind.” [ii]
 
How does this work?  Let’s look at a couple of examples.  
 
In a unit called “Mom and Pop vs. The Big Box – where Wal-Mart is the archetypical “Big Box” – students are asked “to compare the company’s self-portrait to one of the many critical reports about Wal-Mart’s business practices around the world.”  Wal-Mart (which, ironically, sells this book), they’re led to conclude, “creates low prices by avoiding costs for labor, health care, and the environment.” Students are given role-playing instructions for a make-believe community meeting with students playing Wal-Mart executives, city-planning officials, shop owners, and shoppers. 
 
One student plays a developer, with plans to build a new Wal-Mart.  Another plays the part of Alicia, a girl whose friend’s aunt owns a deli-sandwich shop on the street where the new Wal-Mart is planned. “Hey, wait a minute,” she says. “What if all her customers start going to Wal-Mart?  She’ll go out of business.”
 
“The make-believe community meeting reflected real life,” say the authors of “Rethinking Mathematics.” “It was clear by focusing on a low-cost business model, discount stores like Wal-Mart- and discount shoppers- would sacrifice important social values.”[iii]  There may be some math skills scattered among the propaganda lessons but they aren’t really the point.  
 
Another interesting unit has students comparing graphs from United for a Fair Economy “that contrast the U.S. military budget with federal social spending and with the military budgets of other countries around the world.” The author said he wanted to give his fifth graders a different perspective on proposed budget cuts and the conflict in Iraq.    
 
United for a Fair Economy is an organization that was founded “to raise the profile of the inequality issue and support popular education and organizing efforts to address inequality.”  “Social justice” math is a form of popular education, which the author’s of “Rethinking Mathematics” freely admit.  Making math “relevant” isn’t simply putting word problems into a familiar cultural context; it’s about using “math” – or reading or anything else – as the vehicle for forming a predetermined political opinion in the student. 
 
Rethinking Schools has quite a number of materials for reeducating the student. There’s “Reading Writing and Rising Up Teaching About Social Justice and the Power of the Written Word,” and “Teaching for Joy and Justice Re-imagining the Language Arts Classroom” by Linda Christensen.  In Bill Bigelow’s “A People's History for the Classroom,” students conduct a U.S.-Mexico Tea Party.  They are told that the U.S.-Mexico border “is the product of invasion and war” and asked, “From the Mexican standpoint, given the origins and nature of the U.S.-Mexican War, how might people respond to the efforts to exclude Mexicans from U.S. territory and treat them as criminals once they are here?” (pp 29-31)  “Rethinking Early Childhood Education,” edited by Ann Pelo, “collects inspiring stories about social justice teaching with young children.”  
 
These materials are working their way into public school curricula.  The Northwest Conference on Teaching for Social Justice, whose annual meetings are concerned with topics such as Education & Capitalism: Struggles for Learning and Liberation; Interrupting Oppression in the Classroom; Taking Back the Statistics-Mathematics as a Tool for Inquiry; Gender and Sexuality 101; and Sharing the Power of Practice: Writing About Teaching for Social Justice for Rethinking Schools is sponsored by Rethinking Schools.  Rethinking Schools also co-sponsors the San Francisco Teachers 4 Social Justice Conference, the Teaching for Social Justice Curriculum Fair in Chicago, and Education for Social Change Curriculum Fair in St. Louis.
 
It’s a worrisome trend.  Perhaps the reason Johnny and Jose can’t read and haven’t basic math skills is that educators aren’t focused on those skills. 
 
But they should be.
 
Spero columnist Stephanie Block is the author of Change Agents: Alinskyian Organizing among Religious Bodies, available at Amazon.
 
 
 
[i] YouTube video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?list=UUZXyXlMroleiWYnkIgaqD-Q&v=rEGU9vLs50I
[ii] From the Amazon description of the book.  Rethinking Mathematics is published by Rethinking Schools (March 2005).
[iii] Quotes are taken from pages 55-57.
The views and opinions expressed herein are those of the author only, not of Spero News.

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