A Major Math Mess
Racial politics compound problems left behind by embrace of education fads

The Orange County Register
Sunday, April 4, 2004

Math professor at Cal State Northridge

Racial politics, remedial education, teacher training and K-12 school policies are all intertwined in the California State University (CSU) system, and the result is bad news for everyone - students, public schools and taxpayers alike.

To understand this complex picture, some background is in order. A key point to start with is that Cal State colleges have both been affected by problems in state public schools and have been a cause of some of these problems. Here's how: Starting in the 1980s, colleges of education - including CSU's - aggressively promoted faddish education theories like "whole language learning" and "fuzzy math" that plunged California public school students almost to the bottom of the nation in reading and math.

What goes around, comes around. By 1998, 54 percent of all entering freshmen students in the 23-campus CSU system were so weak in math skills that they were required to enroll in remedial programs (the figures were similar for language skills). In March 2000, math specialists in Los Angeles Unified School District estimated that 60 percent of L.A.'s eighth-graders did not know the multiplication tables.

The California school board began to reverse the worst math fads in 1997 after approving rigorous, world-class math standards written by leading mathematicians at Stanford University. Those reforms are now working at the elementary school level in California, and year-by-year improvement is wending its way up the grades. But we are still dealing with a lost generation in high schools and state colleges. Many current high school and college students were denied basic arithmetic in elementary school, and they find themselves in remedial education courses at Cal State colleges. Last year, 58 percent of CSU's 38,000 entering freshmen needed remedial math or English courses.

At Cal State Northridge (CSUN), where I am a math professor, many students enroll with mathematical skills below the fifth-grade level. Some of them do not know the multiplication tables and rely on calculators instead. Through spring semester 2002, the CSUN math department controlled the remedial math program. It was well-run by one of my colleagues, with a passage rate of 81 percent. The program was regarded as a model by other institutions. Given the weak math skills of entering students, it is hard to imagine a higher honest success rate.

Here, unfortunately, is where racial politics enters the picture.

The 81 percent passage rate - however impressive in context - was not high enough for the Pan African Studies and Chicana/o Studies departments at CSUN. Both departments wrote open letters denouncing the math department. Pan African Studies wrote on behalf "of black and brown student clientele regarding the structure of the program, the ambivalence and/or elitist attitudes of some of its instructors and the high failure rates in the developmental math courses." In criticizing the failure rate, Chicana/o Studies argued "that the math department has developed a culture that rejects students who are not math majors," and wrote, "the reaction of the math department is surprising since we believed that the university had progressed in the past 30 and some years."

In case anyone missed the innuendo of racism directed at the math department, the Chicana/o Studies letter added, "If the disciplines fail to meet the needs of students then there has to be alternatives. Faculty governance is an important principle if it does not foster discrimination - that is against the law."

Besides citing the failure rate of 19 percent, the math department's critics gave no other evidence to support charges of racism, elitism or other accusations. Many of the remedial math instructors were themselves Latino, and all worked tirelessly to help the students, including tutoring outside of class. Not only did the math department have a paper trail to prove the effectiveness of its program, it also had extremely high student evaluations to match.

Nevertheless, attempts by the math department to defend itself from charges of racial insensitivity, etc., were ignored by the CSUN administration. Control of the program was taken away from the math department - and now no one complains about passage rates. That's because the problem of remedial math education was solved largely by defining it out of existence. In academic circles, any suggestion of racial insensitivity or "whiteness" typically settles an argument in favor of the accuser, with no further questions asked.

Unfortunately, not only is mathematics education susceptible to race-identity politics, it is also undermined by corporations and the federal government. Corporate foundations and federal bureaucrats have awarded multimillion-dollar grants for the development of math programs that include multicultural platitudes but which undermine arithmetic and algebra competence.

Meanwhile, other CSUN policies also drive the cycle of remediation. Much to my chagrin, students on my campus are allowed to use calculators during the arithmetic final exam for future elementary-school teachers.

Math professors who teach the arithmetic course for future elementary-school teachers, such as myself, are required to allow all students to use their calculators on the exam that tests their understanding of how and why arithmetic "works." The inescapable fact is that California expects more competence in arithmetic from its elementary-school students than CSUN expects from its future teachers. Since 1998, schoolchildren have not been allowed to use calculators on the state's annual standardized tests, and with good reason.

Through its own policies, CSUN drives the cycle of remedial math by sending teachers into the field who sometimes lack proficiency in basic arithmetic. Many of the CSUN- trained elementary school teachers are highly qualified, excellent teachers, but others squeak through with teaching credentials in spite of not knowing arithmetic.

Ethnic studies departments, corporate foundations and at least one Cal State University campus have found common cause in supporting educational programs that ultimately deprive California's future elementary school teachers of basic arithmetic skills. These misguided agendas should be confronted directly by the public and by its elected representatives.

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