Textbook argument divides us
Can an algebra textbook be racist? That's what was argued Tuesday in a Seattle courtroom. Not overtly racist in that a book of equations...
Seattle Times staff columnist
Can an algebra textbook be racist?
That's what was argued Tuesday in a Seattle courtroom. Not overtly racist in that a book of equations and problem sets contains hatred or intolerance of others. But that its existence — its adoption for use in Seattle classrooms — is keeping some folks down.
"We're on untested ground here," admitted Keith Scully.
He's the attorney who advanced this theory in a lawsuit challenging Seattle Public Schools' choice of the Discovering series of math textbooks last year.
The appeal was brought by a handful of Seattle residents, including UW atmospheric-sciences professor Cliff Mass. It says Seattle's new math books — and a "fuzzy" curriculum they represent — are harmful enough to racial and other minorities that they violate the state constitution's guarantee of an equal education.
It also says the School Board's choice of the books was arbitrary.
Mostly, Mass just says the new textbooks stink. For everyone. But he believes they will widen the achievement gap between whites and some minority groups, specifically blacks and students with limited English skills.
"This inquiry-based math is very verbal," Mass said outside court. "Kids who couldn't speak English at all used to be able to do math here. Now, anyone who has problems with English will not be able to learn it."
The group is trying to get a King County Superior Court judge to overturn the board's adoption of the books — even though the district already spent $1.2 million buying them. Judge Julie Spector said she would rule by Feb. 12.
The books are at the center of what is called the "math wars."
This is grossly simplifying, but it's a war between two ways. The old-school way, where the teacher tells you how to do it and then you drill. And the new way, known as the inquiry-based method, in which students are at times presented with problems and asked, often in small groups, to figure out ways to solve them.
Mass is convinced the new math is an aimless mess that has turned the incoming freshmen at the UW into math illiterates.
"A lot of them can't even divide," he says.
I am sympathetic to part of what Mass is saying. My kids are in Seattle Public Schools where, so far, they are getting a decent grounding in math. It's part exploratory new math and part old-school drilling — a nice mix, as far as I'm concerned.
But there's no doubt we need more math rigor. Less than half of 10th-graders pass the math WASL. A test that is mostly eighth-grade material.
But the race angle? Seems to me if the textbooks are lousy then the textbooks are lousy.
In their legal brief, the critics don't offer much evidence of a racial effect. They point out there's a huge, and widening, achievement gap between white kids and blacks or Hispanics. True, but is that because of the textbooks? No idea.
Another example offered is Cleveland High School, which is 95 percent minority. It did a three-year experiment with inquiry-based math, resulting in abysmal test scores. Although, sadly — and unmentioned in the legal brief — not any more abysmal than before the experiment.
The racial argument is a Hail Mary. And a divisive one. It's being repeated in another lawsuit, filed last month, that says Seattle's new school-attendance plan is segregationist.
In the math lawsuit, a School Board member, Sherry Carr, is quoted as defending inquiry-based math, noting it didn't seem fuzzy to her or her kid. The critics conclude this: "There is no evidence that her child is illustrative of any type of student other than a white, upper/middle class native English speaker with a fair aptitude for school — exactly the kind of student who does well with inquiry-based learning."
Sigh. Are we ever going to move past this sort of pigeonholing in Seattle?
There are all flavors of kids, who learn in different ways. We've got to teach to them all. Surely that means a multitude of teaching styles and texts. How is an either/or math war, fought in court, going to help?
As far as arguing that Seattle's new math books are unconstitutional — it's 2010. We've got a black president giving the State of the Union address, people. While the world is moving forward, in that Seattle courtroom Tuesday it felt like we were stuck in about the 1980s.
Danny Westneat's column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or email@example.com.
About Danny Westneat
Danny Westneat takes an opinionated look at the Puget Sound region's news, people and politics. Send tips or comments to firstname.lastname@example.org. His column runs Wednesday and Sunday.
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