How Math Became a Culture War’s Weapon?

Credit: Antoine Dautry/Unsplash

One of the most significant educators of the early 20th century, William Heard Kilpatrick, would fit right in with the current battles over educational culture, as reported by The New Yorker.

Not for everyone

Back then, as now, the traditionalist defence of math education came from the idea that the subject created order and discipline in the minds of young students.

Not everyone was going to need or even have the intelligence to complete an algebra course, Kilpatrick reasoned.

In 1915, Kilpatrick chaired an influential National Education Association committee tasked with looking into the reform of math instruction in high school.

He amplified his attack on the place of math in schools, as the committee’s report declared that nothing in mathematics should be taught unless “its (probable) value can be shown,” and recommended the traditional high-school-mathematics curriculum for only a select few.

From the start of the twentieth century to after the Second World War, the percentage of high-school students enrolled in algebra fell.

In 1909, roughly 57% of high-school students were enrolled in algebra.

New math 

By 1955, that number had been cut by more than half to about 25%.

The decline in advanced math coincided with what can only be called a revolution in secondary schooling.

So began the backlash to Kilpatrick and his coalition of progressive educators.

Starting in the nineteen-fifties, something called “new math” was introduced into classrooms across the country.

The ensuing panic about the U.S.’s ability to compete led to nationwide reforms that brought calculus into the high-school curriculum and, for a time, retired the progressivist movement in education.

Fuzzy math

This same fight has repeated itself on several different occasions since then.

The open-education movement of the late nineteen-sixties and nineteen-seventies tried to eliminate curricula and standardized tests, and stop the separation of kids into different grades; some “open schools” even did away with walls and allowed the children to dictate what was taught.

The reformers believed that it was vital to shrink achievement gaps in part because they saw—somewhat correctly—an emerging economy that would be dominated by math-related fields, whether computer science, engineering, or economics.

A math gap in schools, in essence, was a preview for accelerating income inequality.

The conflict lasted years, during which time anti-reform math traditionalists, decrying what they referred to as “fuzzy math,” had organized themselves into a political force that called for changes in textbooks and lobbied national politicians.

Problem since generations 

In some ways, the cyclical nature of these arguments makes sense: each generation of parents believes their children are facing problems the world has never seen before.

I’d argue that the spectre haunting today’s discord over math education is a growing suspicion of the equity-based movement of educators who, as in the early twentieth century, largely come from graduate education programs like the ones at Stanford and Columbia’s Teachers College.

I have heard this phrase countless times: on social media, in viral clips of school board meetings, and in my own interactions with fellow parents.

Pi is pi everywhere; two plus two, as they say, equals four.

The current proposal, which Rivka Galchen outlined in these pages in September, will be up for adoption in 2023.

It suggests that California addresses achievement gaps in math by finding alternatives to “tracked” math classes for advanced kids in early education and, in a Kilpatrick-esque turn, creating a data-science track for high-school students who might not have an interest in calculus.


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Source: The New Yorker



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