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Research in math rarely generates much controversy, but the recent back and forth over the work of Rochelle Gutierrez and others is something of an exception. That work discusses the cultural roots of math, specifically the way it operates as a gendered space that perpetuates male and white privilege. Even though many professional organizations in math have supported Gutierrez and her work, people continue to demonize her.
Suffice it to say that I stand with Gutierrez. See here for more information.
(For an added bonus, check out The Liberated Mathematician.)
In The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander traces the history of racialized control in the US – from slavery, to Jim Crow, to mass incarceration – pointing out the similarities and differences, particularly between the Jim Crow of the early and mid-20th century and the mass incarceration of African-American and Latino men in the present day.
Jim Crow – which had replaced slavery as the method of reinforcing white supremacy in the US – was a system of laws and practices that made black people into second class citizens unable to vote, to serve on juries, to live in white neighborhoods, to go to school with white children, to use the same bathrooms as white people, or to participate in white society in a myriad of other ways. When it began to crumble in the face of the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s, there was a period of relative hope for racial equality for African-Americans that included more decent-paying jobs, educational opportunities, and more.
The time of promise was short-lived. Alexander argues that the War on Drugs is the mechanism that was and is used to replace Jim Crow by imprisoning of huge numbers of men of color and reinforcing what she calls the “caste system” in the United States. The War on Drugs was initiated by President Reagan in 1982 despite the fact that at the time “less than 2 percent of the American public viewed drugs as the most important issue facing the nation.” Money for drug enforcement skyrocketed. “Department of Defense antidrug allocations increased from $33 million in 1981 to $1,042 million in 1991. During that same period, DEA antidrug spending grew from $86 to $1,206 million, and FBI antidrug allocations grew from $38 to 181 million.”
Because “police can stop, interrogate, and search anyone they choose for drug investigations, provided they get ‘consent,’” racial biases have free rein. In fact, police are allowed to rely on race as a factor in selection whom they stop and search (even though people of color are no more likely to be guilty of drug crimes than whites) – effectively guaranteeing that those who are swept into the system are primarily black and brown.
“Human Rights Watch reported in 2000 that, in seven states, African-Americans constitute 80 to 90 percent of all drug offenders sent to prison. In at least fifteen states, blacks are admitted to prison on drug charges at a rate from twenty to fifty-seven times greater than that of white men.” In that same year, African-Americans were admitted to prison at a level “more than twenty-six times the level in 1983. The number of 2000 drug admissions for Latinos was twenty-two times the number of 1983 admissions.” (Emphasis in the original.) By comparison, “the number of white drug admissions was eight times the number admitted in 1983.”
After arrest, prosecutors can overwhelm defendants with extra charges for which they have no evidence in an often successful attempt to get them to accept a lesser, but still felonious conviction. Because of harsh sentencing laws, “drug offenders in the United States more time under the criminal justice system’s formal control – in jail or prison, on probation or parole – than drug offenders anywhere else in the world.”
Predictably, the prison population exploded: “In 1972, fewer than 350,000 people were being held in prisons and jails nationwide, compared with more than 2 million today .” They are disproportionately black and Latino. “One in every 14 black men was behind bars in 2006, compared with 1 in 106 white men. For young black men, the statistics are even worse. One in 9 black men between the ages of twenty and thirty-five was behind bars in 2006, and far more were under some form of penal control – such as probation or parole.”
This despite the fact that crime rates in the US remained flat or even fell during this time. Moreover, study after study show that crime rates are roughly equal across racial groups. It is not that black and Latino men are more likely to commit crime. It is that they are more likely to be targeted for arrest, more likely to be convicted, and tend to have longer sentences when convicted.
Once convicted, discrimination that is remarkably similar to Jim Crow segregation is legal and encouraged. A system of laws and practices denies felons the right to participate in society, even though they have “paid their debt.” “The vast majority of convicted offenders will never integrate into mainstream, white society. They will be discriminated against, legally, for the rest of their lives – denied employment, housing, education, and public benefits.” Felons cannot vote or serve on juries. Felons cannot apply for federal low-income housing. They are not eligible for most financial aid for college. It is legal in almost all states to deny jobs to the formerly-incarcerated, and they are barred from obtaining many licenses to open businesses of their own. Even in states where convicted felons are eligible for some of these right, they are shackled by legal fees and paperwork requirements that make exercising those rights all but impossible.
Alexander is clear and thorough and thoughtful. The statistics she cites are useful and compelling. Her arguments are logical and compassionate. If at times I felt overwhelmed by the book, it speaks only to its power.
Her goal is not to propose remedies, though she does begin to discuss them at the book’s end. Instead, I think her goal is to show how the system of mass incarceration is one of the biggest, if not the biggest civil rights issue of our time. In this, I think she succeeds.
When she does discuss remedies, she brings in the vision of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who called for a shift from civil rights to human rights. Alexander, in turn, suggests that we unify across racial lines, not by ignoring our differences or pretending that we don’t see the color of each other’s skins, but by recognizing and acknowledging the humanness that we all possess. We can no longer accept the “racial bribes” we are often given, the crumbs that put most whites, even if they live in abject poverty, above most people of color. Some people of color benefit, too, but at the expense of everyone else. Alexander argues that a more just and better world could exist if we reject those bribes and form a coalition that recognizes the common human needs we share and are systematically denied. Together we could be more powerful and build a society that benefits all the people, rather than just a few.
As I read this book, I repeatedly thought that a similar analysis needs to be done of many of our institutions so that we can understand and deconstruct the ways that all our institutions disadvantage people of color, women, and others. I thought particularly of the ways that higher education pushes out people of color and poor folks, sending them the message that they don’t belong there. Perhaps someone is already working on these books. I hope they are, because I believe that knowing and understanding these issues can help us create a more just society.
I am currently on sabbatical till January, 2018. During my sabbatical my primary work-related responsibility is to complete a research project.
In my research project I’m trying to pull together three areas that I have worked in over the course of my career as a community college math teacher: math education, multicultural education, and online education. My initial research has found that, while there is literature in the overlap of pairs of these (math and multicultural, math and online, multicultural and online), there is little where the three areas intersect.
If further research confirms that little or no work has been done in these area, then this niche needs to be filled. The importance of better math education is well-documented. As our college student population increasingly diversifies, the need for the still majority-white teaching profession to understand how to better communicate with students of all backgrounds is more crucial than ever. And, though I don’t think technology is the answer to all educational problems, we would be foolish to think that online education is going away; on the contrary, the private-sector is pushing that way, legislatures have visions of the savings it can produce, and students are demanding the flexibility of learning on their own time and from where ever they happen to be.
I’d love to collaborate with others on what I think is a critical confluence of research and practice. If you’d like to work together, or if you know of work in the intersection of math education, multicultural education, and online education, I’d like to here from you. Please comment here or contact me at: email@example.com.
Every student in the US has to learn algebra. If this statement is an exaggeration, it’s not much of one. Almost all students take at least two years of algebra before graduating from high school and millions take it again in college. In addition, algebra skills are required in most science, engineering, and other course. But as technology evolves and what it means to be an educated person changes, I think it’s time that we think about why we teach algebra and the way we use it in education. In particular, I think it’s time we stop making algebra skills a barrier to success in college.
Now don’t get me wrong – I love algebra. Really. It’s a beautiful achievement, solving problems that challenged humanity for centuries. It’s also fun, and, as a math teacher at a community college, I enjoy supporting people as they learn algebra’s intricacies. I hope algebra is always available for those students who want to study it. However, if we’re honest about the knowledge and skills needed by 21st-century graduates, workers, and citizens, algebra does not rank high on the list. Even in the technical fields, I seriously question how often algebraic skills are actually required.
The issue is especially relevant in the community college setting because large percentages of incoming students are placed into developmental algebra courses, or below. These are the same courses most of us took in high school, but students have trouble retaining the algebraic skills they learned, especially if those skills aren’t related to their majors. As a result, many students struggle to learn algebraic content that, if they’re not going on to calculus, they don’t need for their next courses – topics like factoring polynomials and solving rational equations with variables in the denominator and synthetic division. The data reveal that students who place into algebra or below are very unlikely to ever pass college level math. And because first-generation college students and students of color are placed disproportionately into low-level math courses, the algebra barrier perpetuates educational and economic inequities.
For all these reasons, in 2010 I partnered with a colleague to develop a new course designed to prepare students who were going on to take college-level statistics. The fact is that relatively little algebra is needed to learn statistics and we thought we could help students succeed in statistics using a different kind of course, a course containing only the algebra students would need for statistics. We hoped to help the majority of students who aren’t heading toward calculus and who need statistics to complete their associate degrees and transfer to four-year colleges.
Fortunately, we were not the only ones working on this idea and we learned a lot from professors at other community colleges already trying this approach. (Learn more about the “pre-stat” community at: http://accelerationproject.org/.) With their help we were able to create our course, called Preparation for Statistics, and piloted it in Fall 2011. In the course, we asked students to engage with real data, using statistical ideas in an interactive and constructive teaching and learning style. We even helped them create their own surveys, collect data, analyze the data, and present it to their classmates. It was work to teach this way, but it was also the most fun I’d ever had in class.
Most important, it worked. Data from our college, combined with other colleges teaching similar courses, show that students from pre-statistics courses are successful in college-level statistics and that they are much more likely to complete their math requirements than students that who took the traditional algebra sequence. The evidence also suggests that the courses helped close achievement gaps for underrepresented students. (http://rpgroup.org/system/files/CAP_Report_Final_June2014.pdf) At our college, the evidence was strong enough to expand beyond the pilot stage. Each year we were helping hundreds of students reach and succeed in statistics.
If taking algebra in college is not necessary for success in statistics, what about other math courses? What about science courses? Isn’t algebra the mathematical foundation of modern science?
Questions like these got me thinking about mathematical prerequisites for general education science courses. These are the science courses that non-science majors usually take to satisfy the science requirement for their degrees, things like astronomy, biology, geology, geography, and basic chemistry and physics. I looked for studies of math prerequisites in courses like these, but have yet to find one (if you have one, I’d like to see it). The marked lack of statistical evidence that either supports or refutes the need for math prerequisites in science courses (or any courses, for that matter) is telling. At my college, most of these courses do not have math prerequisites, precisely because they want to attract non-technical majors to the courses (some of the courses advise completion of algebra, but don’t require it).
I did find some unpublished data, collected at my college and two other California community colleges that offer pre-statistics courses. Aggregating the data from all three colleges, students who took pre-stats courses before statistics were almost exactly as successful in their general education science courses as students who took the traditional algebra preparation for statistics (84% vs. 83%). Even disaggregated, the difference between the success of students at each college was never greater than 10 percentage points and the college (my own) with the lowest success rate for pre-stats students in GE science courses was still 72%, compared to 78% success for their traditionally algebra-prepared peers.
These results beg the question of how students without as much algebra are doing so well in general education science courses. One answer, suggested and bemoaned by some, is that instructors of those courses are reducing the mathematical content of the courses to accommodate students who haven’t had algebra since high school. Another potential answer is that, since almost all students took algebra in high school, a little reminding and prompting enables students to use algebra to the extent that they need to solve the problems.
While both of these are possible, I have yet to see any data that support those answers or any other. In the absence of evidence, I think it much more likely that the real skills needed to do well in general education science courses are things like numerical literacy, critical thinking, the ability to connect evidence to an idea, and academic skills like going to class, reading your book, taking good notes, turning in your homework on time, and, perhaps most important, belief in your ability to succeed. All these skills are taught in both algebra and pre-statistics courses; my experience is that more attention is paid to them in pre-statistics courses than in algebra.
But, what if it were true that science instructors have reduced the algebra content of their classes? Would this be a problem? I say, no. From my perspective, science classes exist to teach science concepts, not to test students’ algebraic knowledge. If, indeed, science teachers are making science concepts more understandable for students with less algebra experience, that would be a testament to the quality of their teaching ability. As I like to say, it’s easy to make an idea complicated and hard to understand; the difficult task is to make ideas simple and clear.
We have been making most science and math courses harder to understand by forcing algebra into them, even though it’s not needed or needed only minimally. For example, in a physics class the height of an object thrown in the air can be modeled quite well by a quadratic equation. Understanding of the scientific principle is demonstrated by setting up the equation. Solving the equation is purely algebraic, but most of the time these “physics” problems aren’t correct until the equation has been solved. In a science class, the science concept should be the primary goal. Solving the equation by hand should be less important, especially when computers with powerful solving algorithms are so readily available.
Here’s another example, from a geometry course:
The geometric concept being reinforced is that the sum of the angles in a triangle is always 180°. But, in order to solve the problem, you have to perform some algebra. We don’t need algebra to understand the geometric idea, but if a student can’t do the algebra they won’t get the problem right.
We force students to do similar (and often more complicated) algebraic manipulations in chemistry, biology, oceanography, geography, economics, trigonometry, calculus, statistics and many others. In my experience it is algebra that trips up most students in these courses, not the non-algebra content. Limits, differentials and integrals are challenging ideas in calculus courses, but factoring from beginning algebra is frequently the biggest barrier to completing a calculus problem.
Of course, reinforcing algebraic skills throughout the math and science curriculum is not necessarily a bad thing, but I think too often we do it because that’s the way we were taught, not because of any considered pedagogical reasons. The cost of this decision is high because algebra courses and algebra’s continued use throughout the curriculum is, as I mentioned earlier, so often a barrier preventing students’ success.
And, while algebra can teach attention to detail, mastery of algorithms, symbol manipulation, logic, critical thinking, problem solving, teamwork, numerical literacy, and more, there are other ways to teach those same skills. My experience teaching pre-statistics suggests that we can teach those skills as well or better outside of the abstract context of algebra.
Higher education is changing at an unprecedented pace. These changes are driven partly by increases in the percentage of the population who go to college, partly by pressures from the federal and state governments for more return on their education dollar, partly by employers’ demands for well-prepared, 21st-century graduates, and partly by huge technological advances. In mathematics, the traditional algebra and geometry sequence, familiar to most of us from our own mathematical careers, is being questioned. The algebra sequence, after all, is designed to prepare students for calculus and beyond. But in a world where the most students are not seeking science, technology, and engineering degrees, do we really need to prepare all students for calculus? I don’t think so and I’m not alone. According to the 2015 report Degrees of Freedom: Diversifying Math Requirements for College Readiness and Graduation, “Alternatives emphasizing statistics, modeling, computer science, and quantitative reasoning that are cropping up in high schools and colleges are beginning to challenge the dominance of the familiar math sequence.” (http://edpolicyinca.org/publications/degrees-freedom-diversifying-math-requirements-college-readiness-and-graduation-report-1-3-part-series) These alternatives are emerging because the knowledge and skills needed by informed citizens of the 21st century can be taught as well or better in other ways and because the cost of continuing to insist on algebra is too high.
I’m open to being persuaded that algebra is as important for college students as we have made it. But, to change my mind, you’re going to need to show that the benefits of algebra are algebra’s alone and that they outweigh the costs of forcing everyone to do it.
Brown is the New White is the most hopeful, optimistic book about politics in the US I have read. Phillips’ subtitle captures his main argument, made concrete in his first chapter and backed up by thorough evidence: people of color and progressive white folks are the new electoral majority in the US and, if we organize and take advantage of that majority, we can change the course of the nation, making it a better place to live for all.
Phillips’ prime example is the election of President Obama. Through a careful analysis of the voting trends, he shows that the new majority elected the President and debunks the myth that of a backlash against that mandate in the off-year elections. He demonstrates that the Democratic losses in the US House and Senate were, instead, the result of the new majority not voting in those off-year races, precisely because the Democrats failed to engage progressives on the issues they care about.
In addition, Phillips looks at the history of White privilege in this country and how both the major political parties continue to dedicate the vast majority of their energy and resources to winning the White vote, despite the demographic shifts we are experiencing. He shows how those shifts are rooted in the anti-discrimination, voter rights, and immigration policies enacted in the 1960s, now coming to fruition. And, importantly, Phillips outlines the policy priorities for the new majority, the issues that will energize and bring progressive voters to the polls.
Brown is the New White is not a Pollyanna look at the US — there is chapter entitled “Conservatives Can Count” toward the end of the book that warns the other side is aware of the same trends he outlines and is moving to attract those voters as I write — but it is unrelentingly hopeful. When I saw Phillips speak in person, I asked him how he maintains his optimism in the face of so much cynicism in today’s political landscape. Without hesitation, he explained that 16 million Americans have health care today that didn’t eight years ago, that unemployment is down across all demographics, that life for regular folks all across the country is better today than it was before we elected President Obama. The trends, he said, are up and there is every reason to believe that we can continue to improve.