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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

'R' is for reading -- and race

K-2 teachers won't be switching to a new research-backed, phonics-based literacy curriculum this fall, reports Dana Goldstein in the New York Times. The revised version of Lucy Calkins' Units of Study, used in as many as one in four elementary schools, has been delayed by the publisher because edits made to satisfy curriculum laws in conservative states angered progressives.

The publisher, Heinemann was looking at changing advice in teacher materials "for educators to remain mindful of children’s racial backgrounds and identities, according to several sources who asked to remain anonymous," reports Goldstein. (I wonder how the advice was phrased.)

Other Heinemann authors threatened to quit, including Sonja Cherry-Paul, a co-founder of the Institute for Racial Equity in Literacy. In a statement posted on Twitter on Monday, Dr. Cherry-Paul and her institute co-founder, Tricia Ebarvia, wrote, “Due to irreconcilable differences regarding the work of equity, inclusion and antiracism, effective immediately, we are ending our professional development and publishing relationships with Heinemann.”

Delaying a more effective reading curriculum will do harm to children. As a reading tutor, I can say that racism (and antiracism) don't come up much. Nat sat on the mat to pat the fat cat. Nat and sister Meg (why not Kat?), owner of a pet rat, are members of the BIPOC community. None of my kids seem to notice or care.

The rejected math textbooks weren't trying to indoctrinate students on racial issues, write Tiffini Pruitt-Britton, a former math teacher working on a PhD, and Candace Walkington, an associate professor of math education at Southern Methodist University, in a commentary in Education Week.

It's just the opposite, they write. After studying of popular eight-grade math textbooks, they think the books "lack the multicultural representations that are reflective of the reality of a diverse America."

A majority of the pictures of people in the textbooks showed white, nondisabled individuals.
We found no references to race or social justice let alone critical race theory.
. . . When cultural practices were mentioned in the problems, they were most often situated within regional American cultures — activities like barrel racing and BBQ festivals — which may be alienating or difficult to understand for students with other cultural backgrounds. References to practices that have long histories outside the United States (for example, an algebra problem about paints used during the Hindu festival Holi) were rare.

Word problems do not show non-binary characters or lesbian, gay or bisexual families, they complain. "Heteronormativity" prevails, along with gender stereotypes. In one word problem, a girl starts a babysitting business, while in another a man takes his girlfriend out for dinner and pays the bill.

"Students perform better and learn more when they get math story problems that are both related to their interests and understandable," they conclude.

If it's good for students to tackle a story problem about a Hindu festival that few have heard about, why is it bad for them to be introduced to barrel racing, an activity that's unfamiliar to most students of all colors. (And who can't relate to BBQ? Vegetarians?)

I think math word problems should be written clearly and simply, so students with weak English skills will be able to apply their math skills. Story problems should not be distracting: Just the math, please.

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