by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
John Staddon writes for the Martin Center about a perversion of elementary math instruction.
I was unprepared for what I recently heard in a 2019 speech by a leader in math education, Deborah Loewenberg Ball. While the talk is now two years old, it is very unlikely that her perspective has improved.
Ball’s credentials place her at the apex of the education world: she is a professor and former dean at the University of Michigan School of Education, the Felix Klein Award lecturer at the 14th International Congress of Math Education (Shanghai, China, July 2021) — and the 2017 President of the American Educational Research Association (AERA).
The speech was Ball’s 2019 Summer Keynote address at the Standards Institute, titled Confronting & Dismantling Threats to Our Struggle for Justice in Classrooms, and it is a masterpiece. It is not a masterpiece of psychological science or educational theory or teaching math. It is a masterpiece of rhetoric that rests on false assumptions, persuades through empathic story-telling—and puts teachers, especially white teachers, in a very difficult position.
The talk centers on brief video clips of classroom interactions involving three black kids in a class of thirty fourth graders. Their task is to understand the idea of a fraction. I will just describe the first interaction.
Ball sets the scene with a slide that reads: “But our efforts to make change are still high-risk for reproducing patterns of racism and marginalization. Let’s look.” Apparently we are to see in the children’s answers and teachers’ responses to questions about fractions, “patterns of racism and marginalization.” Racism, omnipresent, like a virus, infects us all.
Fractions are difficult for kids of this age, especially in the needlessly abstract form taught under the “Common Core” curriculum. Ball explains to her large audience that kids must eventually understand the concept of a “number line,” that it is populated with an infinity of numbers—a concept which many adults do not understand, and do not need in daily life. You can understand fractions without knowing the orders of infinity. But we are just concerned with fractions à la Common Core.