Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Math For Social Justice, Part 1

Nineteen years ago, a group of Milwaukee-area teachers had a vision.

They wanted not only to improve education in their own classrooms and schools, but to help shape reform throughout the public school system in the United States.

Today that vision is embodied in Rethinking Schools.

So begins the self-righteous Rethinking Schools website. Of course, any decent person would have to ask what is wrong with such a vision? The sarcastic me would point you to the location of the teachers and indicate that should tell the reader where the teachers are going. The scholarly me is going to walk you through their website and point out the pernicious belief structure that permeates it.

As I read through the Rethinking Mathematics component of the website, a thought kept recurring to me--this sounds like Paulo Freire. Freire was a Brazilian educator who wrote a book entitled Pedagogy of the Oppressed, in which he opined that the "filling the brain" model of education is oppressive and that students should learn within the context of doing social good for their communities, a model of education he called "problem-posing". There is much to attack in applying Freire's work to American schools, but the American left is as enamored with this man as I am of Starburst candies. I read the Rethinking Mathematics section before reading The History and Philosophy of Rethinking Schools, which I linked to above. Had I read the History and Philosophy first I wouldn't have had to use my brain so much to find the link to the leftist Freire:
Brazilian educator Paulo Freire wrote that teachers should attempt to "live part of their dreams within their educational space." Rethinking Schools believes that classrooms can be places of hope, where students and teachers gain glimpses of the kind of society we could live in and where students learn the academic and critical skills needed to make that vision a reality.
It was all there for me. But at least I had these Milwaukee educators pegged.

Now don't get me wrong and create a false dichotomy here, with Waldorf-type schools on the one hand and the stereotypical gray-concrete-Soviet-factory-type of school on the other. As I've stated before I believe that education is a social process, one that is greatly facilitated by rapport between teacher and student and by working with other students. I'm all about "academic and critical skills" that prepare students for the trials (and triumphs) of adulthood in our society. However, I very much disagree with Rethinking Schools' social view and the leftward direction in which that would lead students, to the detriment of us all.
Schools are integral not only to preparing all children to be full participants in society, but also to be full participants in this country's ever-tenuous experiment in democracy. That this vision has yet to be fully realized does not mean it should be abandoned.
While I question whether our 229 years of American independence from Britain, or our 218 years of living under the Constitution (counting from 1787), as an "ever-tenuous experiment in democracy", I'll not debate that point. What I would like to bring up is a quote from the Chinese philosopher Confucius, a quote I think apropos of this discussion: "Learning without thought is labor lost; thought without learning is perilous." If I may be so bold as to interpret his meaning, Confucius instructs us that before "thought", before "critical thinking", must come "learning", the mastery of facts, agorithms, etc. Students must have a solid foundation of knowledge in the arts and sciences before they can apply this knowledge to solve problems. Those that have the learning but don't use it (learning without thought) have perhaps wasted their time but have done no harm, but surely the same cannot be said of the person who pontificates without knowledge of fact.

Put simply, if you pose a problem and teach students how to solve it, they learn to solve one problem. Teach them the fundamentals of solving the problem, and they're able to solve a host of related problems. Didn't someone famous once say something about giving a fish to a man and he eats for a day, but teach him to fish and he eats for a lifetime? (Yes, I know who it was.)

And what type of problem do you pose? Ah, therein lies the pitfall.

These Milwaukee teachers refer to their publication as "activist", a term I'm sure has a loaded meaning for them. I'm convinced the following, innocuous-sounding paragraph has a different meaning to those who know the codewords than it does to the lay person:
While the scope and influence of Rethinking Schools has changed, its basic orientation has not. Most importantly, it remains firmly committed to equity and to the vision that public education is central to the creation of a humane, caring, multiracial democracy. While writing for a broad audience, Rethinking Schools emphasizes problems facing urban schools, particularly issues of race.
Perhaps even the lay person can see the direction the authors will take us, and it's certainly not a direction in which I'd want to go.

So far I've gone after the philosophy of the Rethinking Schools people and haven't yet discussed the text of the Rethinking Mathematics section. You can see that this post is called Part 1; in later parts I'll attend to math specifically instead of generally. My goal here is to show you the bias and danger inherent in this philosophy as a whole before getting into the details of math instruction. I'll close with one more paragraph.
There are many reasons to be discouraged about the future: School districts nationwide continue to slash budgets; violence in our schools and cities shows no signs of abating; attempts to privatize the schools have not slowed; and the country's productive resources are still used to make zippier shoes, rather than used in less profitable arenas like education and affordable housing.
I love these unsubstantiated statements that are presented as facts. While I have no doubt that some school districts are cutting budgets, the question to ask is, why? Is there no good reason ever to cut a government budget? But let's look at education spending. The EIA website, which I quoted here, gives us the following information:
The percentage increases in current spending on public education for the last 10 years are: 4.7, 6.0, 5.7, 5.7, 6.5, 6.8, 5.5, 6.6, 3.0 and 4.4. NEA estimates that total expenditures on U.S. public schools in 2004-05 were $495,235,283,000.
From the same source:
So we were treated to speeches from NEA state affiliate presidents from Michigan, Illinois, Kansas, Massachusetts and Ohio – decrying their fiscal situations, referencing devastating cuts to education funding and complaining about "Third World budgets."
How about devastating budget cuts? Here are the per-pupil spending estimates for 2004-05 from NEA, released just last week:
Michigan: up 3.6 percent
Illinois: up 6.0 percent
Kansas: up 3.5 percent
Massachusetts: up 5.1 percent
Ohio: up 5.8 percent
California: up 2.4 percent
Nationwide: up 3.3 percent
So the claim for "slashing" budgets is interesting. But we all know that violence "shows no signs of abating", right? Uh, not quite. According to the FBI, crimes of all types have shown a sharp decline in the last few decades. In fact, this report shows that last year crimes were down overall nationally, and in every region. I'm not one who thinks privatizing schools is bad, so let's look at the last part, that "our productive resources are still used to make zippier shoes, rather than used in less profitable arenas like education and affordable housing."

What are they saying here? That our industries should be giving away their profits to public schools? If so, what are taxes for? Or are they saying that profit is bad, that we should not have "zippier shoes" until what these educators see as societal woes are all solved?

Why does the left hate capitalism? What is it about the left that they don't understand that humans are most productive when there is a profit motive at work? They don't like monopolies, because there's no competition in industry and that's bad for the consumer. But they don't like the profit motive that breeds competition, either. Leaves only a few choices that I can see, excessive socialism or communism, and neither meets with my approval.

Future posts will deal with Rethinking Schools' painful political views as they relate to teaching mathematics.

Here's Part 2.


Phyllis S said...

Not that I'm against social justice or anything, and I could be wrong (it has happened before), but doesn't 2+2=4 whether you are rich, poor, black or white? Doesn't E=MC(2) if you're in Japan or Brazil or Ecuador?
Giving children the basic foundation is what solves social ills--ensuring they can read fluently, write clearly and do the math required in our ever-increasingly technological society will be the impetus for 'zippier shoes' et al.

Anonymous said...

i was in brazil. and the stupid math is different. their precal is different from ours. bummer.

Darren said...

Much of our "pre-calculus" class was trigonometry. Did sin^2 x + cos^2 x = 1 even in Brazil? I think it did.

How was math taught there?

And what were you doing in a math class there? I thought you were on vacation!