Grading Those Math Texts
Terry H. Schwadron
April 25, 2022
As we know, the Florida Department of Education rejected more than 50 mathematics textbooks, or 41% of those submitted by publishers, ostensibly for abridging Florida’s new learning standards or because they “contained prohibited topics” that included references to critical race theory or encouraging gender fluidity.
Until late last week, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis refused to show any examples of how he sees math books as corrupting young elementary school students.
Apart from the obvious infusion of culture politics into selection of math textbooks, it had been peculiar that DeSantis did not want to disclose what he saw as wrong, even to book publishers interested in meeting Florida standards.
Then, under pressure, the governor released four examples. One with equation formulas clearly too involved for students learning to count involves a graph that shows results of a test that measures levels of racial prejudice taken from a national survey, the kind of poll in the news virtually every week. Students are asked to recognize or determine the differences between those who see “slight” from “moderate” bias as a math problem.
Looking at the example, the evident weirdness is that our youngest students don’t do equations, never mind read at a level that would be required to solve the word problems presented. It is also social science data, not a prescription for racial animus or “critical race theory.” Just the mention of race or perceived injury seems to trip the Florida ban. Alternatively, anyone capable of solving the equations ought to be able to distinguish what are numbers and what is unwanted propaganda in the example.
Then, The New York Times did us a service by going out to obtain samples from 21 barred textbooks. “In most of the books, there was little that touched on race, never mind an academic framework like critical race theory, The Times found. “But many of the textbooks included social-emotional learning content, a practice with roots in psychological research that tries to help students develop mind-sets that can support academic success.”
OK, let’s bring parents and politicians into the classroom. But lesson one should be to hear what really is being said before banning books.
Marketing materials provided by the company Big Ideas Learning, whose elementary textbooks Florida rejected, reflects a common way that teachers are trained to think about “social-emotional learning.”
Specifically, teachers are advised that when students feel confident about learning, about knowing themselves, the lessons stick better. In other words, tapping into characters and stories helps math become more than rote, and reduces fear of learning the unknown. Moreover, one illustration advises students to disagree with one another politely and with respect. Another names self-awareness, self-management, responsible decision-making, social awareness and relationship building as goals in class, a framework was developed by CASEL, an education nonprofit.
Pretty controversial stuff, right?
According to The Times, research suggests that students with these skills earn higher test scores.
But, The Times said, right-wing activists like Chris Rufo, senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, have sought to tie social-emotional learning to the broader debate over the teaching of race, gender and sexuality in classrooms. Last month, Rufo told The Times that while social-emotional learning sounds “positive and uncontroversial” in theory, “in practice, SEL serves as a delivery mechanism for radical pedagogies such as critical race theory and gender deconstructionism.” Rufo said, “The intention of SEL, is to soften children at an emotional level, reinterpret their normative behavior as an expression of ‘repression,’ ‘whiteness,’ or ‘internalized racism,’ and then rewire their behavior according to the dictates of left-wing ideology.”
Rufo believes that the goals require teachers “to serve as psychologists, which they are not equipped to do.” Teacher training does in fact include an understanding of early child development.
It’s simpler for Governor DeSantis, who said this week that social-emotional learning is a distraction. “Math is about getting the right answer. It’s not about how you feel about the problem.”
Apparently, motivating students is not an issue.
Assessing the Ban
At least we now can understand DeSantis even if we may disagree.
The Times’ survey included a McGraw Hill fifth-grade book that advises students to write a “math biography” reflecting their feelings about the subject and how they expect math skills could help them enjoy hobbies or achieve goals. A first-grade textbook from the publisher Savvas Learning Company, formerly known as Pearson K12 Learning, repeatedly refers to the importance of “effortful learning,” “learning together” and having a “growth mind-set.” One character says: “To have a growth mind-set, try a new way when you’re stuck.”
The idea is that teachers could recognize which students are fearful and might need extra help, as well as prepare students for the learning to come. “Be curious,” one page suggests, asking which fraction doesn’t belong in the division example.
Education researchers have explored how examples from pop culture and the business world help create a “growth mind-set.” In other words, the proponents here are more interested in preparing minds for learning than for filling heads with either rote addition and subtraction results or some kind of imagined political outcomes.
“If you asked 100 C.E.O.s what skills they want in a new hire, the top five skills are going to be about social-emotional learning — not algebra,” Timothy Dohrer, director of teacher leadership at Northwestern University, told The Times.
Indeed, over many years, it has been conservative voices rather than liberals who have insisted on infusing public education with morals teachings or cultural values. That’s why we have a constant slew of court cases about bringing religious thinking into schools, for example.
Somehow, these social-emotional goals have become conflated with ideas about teaching about race or allowing gender identity questions to enter the classroom.
In June 2021, the Florida Department of Education wrote the publishers of math textbooks, advising them not to include “social-emotional learning and culturally responsive teaching” in their materials. The publishers have 21 days to appeal the decisions under Florida state law.
Education leaders, including the National School Boards Association, insist that critical race theory, a graduate school take-off point for reconsidering social history and sociology, is not being taught in K-12 schools.
It is far easier, then, to see barring of books that might mention or show pictures with race as an act of political theater rather than getting into the weeds of education learning theories.