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  • John Garen, PhD

Math Education: Correct Answers or Politically Correct Answers?

Let's Evaluate What Really Counts in Math Education

By John Garen, PhD and Gary Houchens, PhD

In the Jefferson County Public Schools, Kentucky’s largest district, less than one in three high school students can perform math at a proficient level. In some schools the percentage of students proficient in math is in the single digits.

So how do district leaders plan to vastly accelerate student learning? By launching a year-long program to train teachers how to teach “anti-racist” math. Evidently JCPS thinks the reason their students can’t do basic math is because of the “curricular violence” in the way mathematics has traditionally been taught.

Similar math initiatives have sprung up in California and elsewhere based on the idea that, for example, “finding the right answer” is a manifestation of white supremacy.

This nonsense is, at best, a distraction from doing the real work of better educating students, and at worst education malpractice.

Successfully teaching math to low-income, minority students is not a mystery, though it may not be easy. The basics were demonstrated in an inspiring way by Jaime Escalante of Garfield High School in inner-city Los Angeles.

Indeed, his stunning success in building math achievement among largely low-income Hispanic students were dramatized in the 1988 movie Stand and Deliver, where Garfield students excelled in attaining advanced placement credit in calculus.

What was Garfield’s secret?

First, hard work. There is no substitute, especially for students behind in math. Second is putting in long hours. The students at Garfield often put in extra time before and after school, on weekends, and in the summer. Others include developing perseverance, patience, and mental toughness. And engagement with and motivation of students – as well as their families – is very important, too.

The Garfield students succeeded in getting the correct answers, with no resort to politically correct slogans or pedagogy.

Indeed, the general approach used at Garfield is universal, as any parent trying to help their kids with math can attest. It takes hard work, long hours, perseverance, patience, engagement, and motivation. But it works.

Sadly, the program at Garfield ultimately clashed with the Los Angeles public school district and the local teachers’ union and it fell into disarray. Public school bureaucracies simply cannot deal with the innovation, adaption, and outside-the-box activities that are needed to get the work done and motivate students and families.

Enabling and empowering education entrepreneurs is critical in sustaining and adding programs like Mr. Escalante’s at Garfield. Unfortunately, we see little of this from many education policy makers.

If Jefferson County Public Schools won’t provide a high-quality math curriculum to all its students, families deserve other schooling options. Let education funding follow students to the school of their family’s choice. If families want “woke” mathematics, they can get it from JCPS. Or if they want the kind of rigorous mathematics that transformed lives at Garfield High School, they can get it from a school that will actually provide it.

As far as we know, other Kentucky school districts have not gone as far down the road of adopting “anti-racist” math as Jefferson County has. Yet math achievement is poor in many districts, and the approach that transformed Garfield is nowhere to be seen in Kentucky public schools. Parents everywhere deserve the option of moving the children to schools that are innovative and can accomplish remarkable things with the kids.

It is time for Kentucky’s lawmakers to stand up for students across the Commonwealth and finally enact charter school legislation, or better yet, insist that education dollars fund students, not systems.

John Garen, PhD is BB&T Professor of Economics at the University of Kentucky. Gary Houchens, PhD is professor of education administration at Western Kentucky University.

This opinion piece was originally written for Commonwealth Educational Opportunities and has been published in multiple news outlets statewide. Unsurprisingly, the Courier-Journal continues to refuse to publish these ideas.

1 comment

1 Comment

Steve Goodman
Steve Goodman
Oct 05, 2021

How can math be considered any more racist than sports? While seemingly lowering the bar in math, why not in the interest of athletic justice, also lower the basketball rims to six or seven feet so more players can dunk? And if the school system wants to have a Black student union in all middle and high schools, then they must also have White and Hispanic student unions in the same schools to avoid the appearance of racism, in my opinion.

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