Opinion: Holding back advanced math learners fosters division, not equity

In a guest column, retired Georgia educator Jim Arnold says equity initiatives that focus on ridding mathematics of racism are misguided and counterproductive. He says the push in some states and districts to reduce advanced, honors and gifted math classes in the name of equity divides communities.

The former superintendent of Pelham City Schools, Arnold has his own education blog. In his 48 years in public education, Arnold also served as a classroom teacher, assistant principal and principal and is an adjunct professor at Troy University.

By Jim Arnold

California is “reimagining” math classes for its 6 million students because too many low-income Hispanic and Black students are being “left behind” and never reaching calculus classes. Its new framework advises teaching math with a social justice orientation.

Cambridge Public Schools in Massachusetts stopped offering advanced math classes to students in sixth through eighth grades because they were not enrolling enough low-income students.

The Equitable Math curriculum, funded in part by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, goes a little further, explaining, “... white supremacy culture in the mathematics classroom can show up when there is a greater focus on getting the ‘right’ answer than understanding concepts and reasoning.”

We need to clarify the differences in equality and equity. Equality means each person or group of people is provided with the same opportunities. It is generally understood as an ideal, and most people understand it to mean that effort, determination, ambition and perseverance translate to success. Equity recognizes that every person has different circumstances, and that the allocation of resources and opportunities will be needed to provide equal outcomes for all.

Credit: Courtesy photo

Credit: Courtesy photo

From a teacher’s point of view, there are several issues more important than addressing mathematical racism. Social promotion policies, for example, ensure that a sizable number of students in every class lack the foundational knowledge to be successful in education. Social promotion is a major reason so many students in every class have not earned the prerequisites to be there.

Another reason that concerns many teachers is that many schools, under pressure from parents and misguided administrators, have taken away the right of students to fail. No matter how minuscule the effort a student might exert, including making no effort at all, zeros are not allowed. Even students who sleep in class, disrupt others to the best of their abilities, skip school, shirk homework and write only their names on a test paper will still obtain a score of 50.

Don’t think kids aren’t aware of this “no fail” policy. Word got out years ago, and they know that no matter how little effort, they will advance to the next grade. They also know if they get their parents to worry the teacher to the point of distraction, they will be given, if not by the teacher than by weak administrators, opportunities during the last two weeks of school to “make up” work they never did in the first place and miraculously achieve a passing grade.

The insanity of accelerating all students in place of providing advanced math classes is simply another setup for student failure and blaming teachers when the insanity doesn’t work. Teachers who lack the authority to fail students who don’t complete the requisite work will continue to be forced to pass students to the next grade, the next level or the next class.

If you think there’s a teacher shortage now, just wait.

The average class in public schools is 25 students. Imagine a teacher’s frustration at having among those 25 kids four who require special ed services, five who are at least one grade level behind the rest of the class in all subjects, five who qualify for advanced instruction and 11 who range somewhere in the middle of that instructional-needs bell curve.

Teachers will almost always teach to the middle of the class and reach as many students as possible and hope for the best for the others. There is simply no class time available to teach all levels at the same time with too many kids and only one teacher and in classes limited to an hour a day. “I have a great idea!” says some administrator who hasn’t spent enough time in a classroom to know what good teaching is or, more importantly, what it is not; “Let’s just push all kids to learn faster and advance quicker!”

I’m guessing many of the core classes in your child’s school will have many more than 25 students. I’m also guessing that many of the teachers will have less than five years’ experience. Large classes and a wide range of ability and achievement levels in students do not go well together.

Classes of fewer than 20 students with a wide range of academic achievement might be successful if the teacher is a master teacher, parent involvement is required and administrative support (as opposed to micromanagement) is provided.

What are the chances that’s going to happen in public education? You know the answer to that one, too.

Constantly meeting educational goals by lowering standards is not improving the quality of education but is making sure the majority of people are having their thinking done for them, and assuming they are OK with that arrangement. After a few years of this type of educational “improvement,” it probably will be.

You’d better hope your doctor, banker, carpenter, plumber, mechanic, engineer or any other profession wasn’t trained by someone who doesn’t believe the “right” answer is important. You can also bet that every other subject will soon be declared racist also.