Nov. 7th, 2010

So I promised in an earlier post that I would talk about the anti-racist mathematical movement as I understand it (which is admittedly not well yet).

At a certain level, it seems to be a web of issues and I will mention them and then leave them without support or defense. One complaint is that mathematics is taught from the perspective of how it came to be understood in Europe, which often times ignores that virtually all of elementary mathematics was independently discovered by every culture in history (Chinese mathematics in particular often beat key European discoveries by a millennium or more) and that mathematical discoveries that Europeans knew were often the product of Arab, Indian, and Egyptian influences but we often don't highlight those contributions as such. This bleeds over into the same sorts of "dead white man" issues that literature and the physical sciences have faced over the years -- both that mathematical discovery is closed and that people of color have no talent for it anyways, which will discourage a student of color from mastering the material and furthermore from contemplating a career in a mathematical field. And that, in turn, is connected to all of the other ways that we fail to expect mathematical mastery (let alone excellence or prodigy) from students of color.

As I say, there is no lack of very important discussions to be had there. And my role in those various discussion would range from pulling out my cheerleader uniform to mildly defending the status quo all the way to heavy skepticism. I cannot help but become more informed as my own education continues, so perhaps I will someday come to know enough to speak on some of them in the future. In the mean time, I will speak of my first-hand experience with an issue here that I do know.

(For those who haven't been following along at home, my experience is as a math tutor for students studying for the GED and other related math tests at around the 8th grade level in the United States. My students are mostly black and Latino, nearly all female, I suspect virtually all living in poverty, and a significant number attempting to overcome learning disabilities and similar challenges.)

I will illustrate with an actual example that happened in the past week. About half of my students are taking a formal GED math class that my tutoring sessions are intended to supplement, and this past week they took the Official Practice Test. (A sufficiently high grade in this test would allow them to "graduate" to being allowed to retake the Math portion of the GED.) Here is a relevant portion of a question from that test. I won't display the rest of the question because the last thing I need is a cease-and-desist letter from the ACE, but trust me that an understanding of this sentence is a fundamental part of solving the problem. Again, I want to highlight that this is not a third-party product but an actual question generated by the American Council on Education that is a part of the gate-keeping process for GED diplomas.

"A restaurant menu lists 5 appetizers, 6 main dishes, and 4 desserts that are specialties of the house."

When I reviewed this question in my class, one of my best students shot up her hand and said "I'm sorry, but what does 'appetizer' mean? I'm sure I've seen the word before -- I mean, it's not like I've never been to a restaurant -- but I don't know if I've ever had one." And a few of us kind of talked out that it was like a plate of potato skins or chicken wings or shrimp cocktails that everyone at the table could share while they were waiting for the main dishes to be served, and she seemed to get it (although it was an embarrassing topic for her so I can't be certain).

But you see what happened there. If you're a middle-class white kid like me whose family ate out at sit-down restaurants on the average of once a week, you're answering an easier question than that student of mine did. Because we know that an appetizer isn't a specific sort of main dish, so we just multiply those three numbers together and move on. My student has to go looking deeper for contextual clues to figure out how to process these numbers. I can accept the argument that those clues are buried deeper in the problem, but there is a larger probability that she's going to miss those clues, and even if she does find them she will have less time and less morale than someone who "just knows" these non-mathematical facts.

And this is the sort of thing that you find quite a bit of once you're looking for it (and it is even easier when you have students who are comfortable enough to "admit" that it's their fault that they don't understand poorly-worded questions). How many days are there in June? What is the standard restaurant tip? What is an "at large" delegate? What does "reservoir" mean? Some of these questions are less unfair than others, and reading comprehension and setting up word problems are truly valuable skills that need to be tested. But when the word problems that you set up are biased against some classes or cultures, you really don't get to then dump on those classes and cultures for underperforming on the test.


Matthew Daly

December 2012

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