The New New Math

THE NEW NEW MATH….Today’s topic is the teaching of mathematics to eager young minds. First up is Diane Ravitch:

Mathematics is being nudged into a specifically political direction by educators who call themselves “critical theorists.” They advocate using mathematics as a tool to advance social justice. Social justice math relies on political and cultural relevance to guide math instruction. One of its precepts is “ethnomathematics,” that is, the belief that different cultures have evolved different ways of using mathematics, and that students will learn best if taught in the ways that relate to their ancestral culture.

From this perspective, traditional mathematics ? the mathematics taught in universities around the world ? is the property of Western civilization and is inexorably linked with the values of the oppressors and conquerors. The culturally attuned teacher will learn about the counting system of the ancient Mayans, ancient Africans, Papua New Guineans and other “nonmainstream” cultures.

Well, that sounds pretty silly, doesn’t it? And Ravitch also has a pretty amusing anecdote about looking up the letter “F” in math texts from 1973 vs. 1998.

[UPDATE: Apparently this anecdote is actually a deliberate fabrication. Details here.]

Unfortunately, what Ravitch’s piece lacks is any evidence that the critical theorists are actually having any influence. They make pretty good punching bags, but I’d like to see some evidence that anyone is seriously listening to them before I start panicking.

Elsewhere, Joanne Jacobs is unhappy that Virginia will no longer require teachers (other than math teachers) to pass a math test in order to get a teaching credential:

Here are “advanced math” test prep questions for Praxis I, which is being abandoned. Thirty-five years out of high school, I can do these problems in my head. It’s hard to believe there are people smart enough to teach who can’t pass a basic math test. How are they going to average students’ grades?

The Praxis prep questions seem a bit odd to me, although I can’t quite pin down why (except for Question 16, which seems unanswerable with the information given). More to the point, though, I have to admit that even though the questions aren’t really all that grueling, it’s hard to figure out why I should care if a high school English teacher has forgotten how to use scientific notation. There are probably lots of university English professors who have forgotten how exponents work too, and no one cares about that.

And yet this seems like the wrong answer to me. My instinct is on Joanne’s side. So I’ll open this up for comments since, oddly enough, you guys seem to enjoy talking about math education. Tell me where I’ve gone wrong.

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