There’s not much mathematics in the new math, writes Diane Ravitch in the Opinion Journal. First came “innocent dumbing down.”
In a comparison of a 1973 algebra textbook and a 1998 “contemporary mathematics” textbook, Williamson Evers and Paul Clopton found a dramatic change in topics. In the 1973 book, for example, the index for the letter “F” included factors, factoring, fallacies, finite decimal, finite set, formulas, fractions and functions. In the 1998 book, the index listed families (in poverty data), fast food nutrition data, fat in fast food, feasibility study, feeding tours, ferris wheel, fish, fishing, flags, flight, floor plan, flower beds, food, football, Ford Mustang, franchises and fund-raising carnival.
Now “critical theorists” are politicizing 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.
. . . A new textbook, “Rethinking Mathematics: Teaching Social Justice by the Numbers,” shows how problem solving, ethnomathematics and political action can be merged. Among its topics are: “Sweatshop Accounting,” with units on poverty, globalization and the unequal distribution of wealth. Another topic, drawn directly from ethnomathematics, is “Chicanos Have Math in Their Blood.” Others include “The Transnational Capital Auction,” “Multicultural Math,” and “Home Buying While Brown or Black.” Units of study include racial profiling, the war in Iraq, corporate control of the media and environmental racism. The theory behind the book is that “teaching math in a neutral manner is not possible.” Teachers are supposed to vary the teaching of mathematics in relation to their students’ race, sex, ethnicity and community.
That’s not how math is taught in Singapore, Korea or other countries whose students outscore ours in international math tests, Ravitch points out. “They teach them instead that mathematics is a universal language that is as relevant and meaningful in Tokyo as it is in Paris, Nairobi and Chicago.”
Update: Darren, who still teaches about Train A and Train B traveling toward each other at different speeds, doesn’t think it matters which ethnic group’s members first thought up the Pythagorean theorem. Read the comments too.
Update II: That 1998 “contemporary mathematics” textbook has two indexes, according to someone who emailed Kevin Drum’s Political Animal site. The Evers-Clopton list comes from “contexts” not “mathematical topics,” which lists: “Faces, Face-views (3-D drawing), Finding equations (using points, using regression, using situation, using slope and intercept), Five-number summary, Formula (area, perimeter, surface area), Four-color problem, Fractal, Fractional exponents, Frequency table, Front view (3-D drawing), and Function.”