Seattle Schools Plan Curriculum to ‘Explore’ Cultural Appropriation of Math

TO GO WITH AFP STORY by Rob MacPherson, Lifestyle-education-US-writing
Robert MacPherson/AFP/Getty Images

The Seattle school district is putting into place a K-12 curriculum that encourages students “to explore how math has been ‘appropriated’ by Western culture and used in systems of power and oppression.”

Education Week reported on the “controversial move that puts the district at the forefront of a movement to ‘rehumanize’ math,” or what is labeled “Ethnomathematics.”

Education Week reported that Seattle is not alone in pushing this political agenda, with schools “all over the country” discussing this ideology:

In most places, if schools offer ethnic studies at all, it’s usually in a stand-alone course in high school. But increasingly, schools and districts are starting to sprinkle ethnic studies across the K-12 spectrum. Seattle is taking a highly unusual approach by weaving the field’s multicultural and political questions not just through all grade levels, but into all subjects.

“Seattle is definitely on the forefront with this,” said Robert Q. Berry III, the president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. “What they’re doing follows the line of work we hope we can move forward as we think about the history of math and who contributes to that, and also about deepening students’ connection with identity and agency.”

The Education Week article includes a sidebar with articles on this left-wing proposal with titles that include: 

“Seattle’s framework reflects ideas and practices that NCTM has outlined in publications such as last year’s ‘Catalyzing Change in High School Mathematics,’” Education Week reported. “That report argues, among other things, for renewed focus on helping students see how math affects the lives of millions, in social media algorithms, polling data, and world finance.”

Education Week also reported that this mash up of math and left-wing politics isn’t a good idea:

Seattle’s proposed guidelines caused a furor on social media after Rod Dreher, an editor for The American Conservative, blogged about them on Sept. 30. In a Twitter thread dubbed #WokeMath, critics sneered at the district’s blend of math and oppression, and zeroed in on parts of the framework that ask, “How important is it to be right?” and “Who gets to say if an answer is right?”

Seattle talk-radio host Dori Monson jumped into the fray on his own blog, asking, “Did you realize when you subtracted one number from another that you were disenfranchising people by using Western math?” Liz Wheeler, a host on One America News, tweeted that Seattle “is now teaching kids as young as Kindergarten that math is racist.”

Education Week interviewed a “top official” in a math organization who asked to speak anonymously to avoid his name becoming part of the controversy.

“We all want students of color to be included, believe they can learn math, and see themselves as mathematicians,” he said. “It’s important for them to learn about great contributions to mathematics from all cultures—Indian and Chinese and Babylonian.”

“But you don’t need to talk about liberation and oppression and how Western mathematics has somehow taken over,” he said. It just turns people off and makes the goal of being inclusive that much tougher.”

Tracy Castro-Gill, Seattle’s ethnic studies director, told Education Week that one Seattle elementary school has been trying out some of the ideas from the proposal, “but she wouldn’t name the school ‘because of the hate and vitriol’ on social media.”

Castro-Gill defended the proposal.

“Of course there are right answers in math. We’re not saying there aren’t,” Castro-Gill said. “What we’re saying is that there are many ways of reaching conclusions, and that process should include dialogue.” 

“If a student got the right answer, we should celebrate that ingenuity and intelligence instead of telling them there is only one way to get to that right answer,” Castro-Gill said.

“Seattle’s new math framework grew out of a 2017 community campaign, led by the NAACP, for more attention to ethnic studies,” Education Week reported.

Follow Penny Starr on Twitter.


Please let us know if you're having issues with commenting.