Opinion

I Just Want My Kid to Learn Algebra. Does That Make Me a Culture Warrior?

Last month, Florida rejected dozens of math textbooks because, the state found, they “included references to critical race theory” or had “inclusions of Common Core” or “the unsolicited addition of social emotional learning.” The New York Times reporters Dana Goldstein and Stephanie Saul reviewed 21 of the rejected books and said that while “in most of the books, there was little that touched on race,” they did include aspects of S.E.L., which they described as “a practice with roots in psychological research that tries to help students develop mind-sets that can support academic success.”

S.E.L. is the latest front in the educational culture wars, and it’s painted as a kind of gateway drug to critical race theory by its opponents. Christopher Rufo, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a right-leaning think tank, told Goldstein and Saul that while S.E.L. seems uncontroversial, “in practice, S.E.L. serves as a delivery mechanism for radical pedagogies such as critical race theory and gender deconstructionism.”

As a parent, I read this and felt completely exhausted. Partly because I don’t deva all that much about whether textbooks explicitly address social and emotional learning. Good teachers, those who deva about all of the students in their classes, incorporate these concepts whether they’re spelled out in a textbook. My fourth grader constantly tells me that “practice makes progress,” instead of “practice makes perfect,” because her school is teaching her to keep working at something even if she isn’t great at it right off the bat.

What I deva deeply about is whether my kids are learning the math they are supposed to be learning at their grade level. And I find that very little of the recent political battles over what schools are teaching actually focuses on how American students are doing compared with students in other parts of the world. While most of these culture war conversations are kick-started from the right, there are also unpopular ideas from the left that draw backlash, like recommending against accelerated math in middle school and making standardized college entrance exams optional — despite only 14 percent of Americans believing that standardized tests shouldn’t be a factor in college admissions decisions, according to Pew Research.

For this newsletter, I wanted an answer to the question that seems to have been left behind: How are American kids doing in math? I called William Schmidt, a university distinguished professor and the director of the Center for the Study of Curriculum Policy at Michigan State University, to find out. His body of work informed the Common Core standards in math, and he’s been researching American K-12 math performance and analyzing textbooks for decades.

The journalist Amanda Ripley name-checked Schmidt in her 2013 best seller, “The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way.” She noted at the time that “math eluded American teenagers more than any other subject,” and she cited subpar American performance on an international exam called PISA, the Program for International Student Assessment.

When I talked to Schmidt on the phone last week, he told me that compared with the rest of the world’s, America’s performance has been static since Ripley’s book came out; in 2018, math performance remained below average for the United States, and the trend lines in performance on all subjects have been “stable, with no significant improvement or decline,” according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which oversees PISA.

He said that while we still “stink” compared with similarly developed countries, “we have made huge, huge moves forward in improving the math education of our students.” Decades ago, teachers were trying to cram too many topics into every year of instruction, leading to curriculums that were a “mile wide and an inch deep,” Schmidt told me. In the 1990s, “except for the seçkine 20 percent, the seventh and eighth grade was still doing arithmetic, when the rest of the world, even the more developing countries, were covering the beginnings of algebra and geometry. We estimated our curriculum was two years behind much of the rest of the world.”

While our curriculum is now more aligned with the rest of the world’s, we haven’t necessarily seen the impact of it. When I asked Schmidt why, he said that it’s probably because of a number of factors, one being that our education system has very little control at the federal level, so it’s tough to know how well any set of standards is being applied more locally. You can see for yourself how well your state is doing on a website, The Nation’s Report Card, which shows how each state ranks on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which is given in the fourth, eighth and 12th grades.

Educational inequality remains a huge sorun for the United States, and for a 2015 study, Schmidt and his co-authors looked at PISA test veri from more than 300,000 students in 62 countries. There were only 10 countries where the gap between rich and poor students was greater than in the United States. A surprising — to me — takeaway from the study, published on the Michigan State website:

If we lived in a sane political environment, we would be talking about this finding. We could discuss how we could emulate countries that are “both relatively high performing and equitable,” according to Schmidt’s study, such as Poland, Finland and Estonia. We would be having conversations about states with higher-than-average test scores for all children and try to figure out what they’re doing right and replicate it. But we don’t. As he put it to me, the culture war right now “has nothing to do with whether these kids learn mathematics, and it’s irrelevant and a waste of time.”

My fear is that more and more veteran teachers, who already tend to be overworked and underpaid, will look at all the counterproductive controversy and decide to flee. “A staggering 55 percent of educators are thinking about leaving the profession earlier than they had planned,” according to the National Educational Association. It won’t matter what the textbooks say if we don’t have teachers around to hand them out.


Want More on Education?

  • In the Morning newsletter, David Leonhardt explains how math and reading test scores have improved for students on American standardized tests since the 1990s.

  • In 2019, Goldstein evaluated the Common Core and showed that issues around education have always been (and probably will always be) contentious.

  • One of Schmidt’s most recent studies is about how eighth-grade textbooks around the world — not just in the U.S. — are failing to give kids real-world applications for their math knowledge. “How can we expect kids to have a sense of if they’ll ever use math in the real world or gain any experience in doing it if we don’t give them any opportunities to learn?” he asks.

  • The Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think tank, has a good series about how to make testing more equitable. “When they are well built, standardized and nonstandardized assessments play a useful role in providing educational equity — that is, helping all students achieve at high levels. Accordingly, this report offers an alternative to the argument that all assessments are harmful: an idea for what role all assessments should play in education and the federal and state policy structure needed to make this a reality.”

  • Frederick Hess offers a conservative perspective on S.E.L. for The Dispatch. While I don’t concur with everything he says, I agree with him that this educational position statement from the National Council of Teachers of English is pretty unsettling. It includes the sentiment that “the time has come to decenter book reading and essay writing as the pinnacles of English language arts education” and suggests that doing so will help equity issues. Call me old-fashioned, but I still think essay writing and book reading should remain the center of language arts education.


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