Math Ethnic Studies Framework
In early October, the Seattle Public Schools (SPS) released a draft ethnic studies framework for K-12 mathematics. The framework seeks to situate mathematics in its historical and cultural contexts and highlight mathematics as a site of power, oppression, identification, and resistance. The framework is built off work to extend ethnic studies to other subjects within the K-12 curriculum. According to Tracy Castro-Gill, the ethnic studies program manager at SPS, the framework is not a legal mandate on schools but rather suggestions for teachers to have new types of conversations in their classrooms.
I was curious about the story behind the framework. This is what I’ve pieced together so far. In 2017, the Seattle King County chapter of the NAACP passed a resolution calling on SPS to adopt an ethnic studies requirement for elementary and secondary schools. This led to the development of an ethnic studies task force and, eventually, a working group to support and implement the development of an ethnic studies curriculum. Information on the resolution and task force can be found here: Ethnic Studies – Seattle Public Schools. In 2019, Senators Hasegawa, Conway, Frockt, Wellman, Wilson, and Saldaña sponsored a bill to:
- “adopt essential academic learning requirements and grade-level expectations that identify the knowledge and skills that all public school students need to be global citizens in a global society with an appreciation for the contributions of diverse cultures” (SB 5023(2)), and
- “identify and make available ethnic studies materials and resources for use in grades seven through twelve” (SB 5023(3)).
The bill also created an Ethnic Studies Advisory Committee. The draft mathematics framework grew out of these efforts.
The framework has been met with much controversy. One criticism comes from those that ridicule the idea that 2 + 2 = 4 and the quadratic formula can be racist. This, I believe, is a misunderstanding of the framework. In my reading, the framework would suggest that reciting the quadratic formula without knowing some kind of derivation of it represents just as much an incomplete understanding of the concept as not understanding its roots (no pun intended) in the Middle East and Northern Africa. Just as a culture of rote memorization has prevented many people from entering the mathematics community, a culture of decontextualized mathematics can prevent many students from seeing themselves as potential contributors to the subject. The question, of course, becomes whether cultural and historical knowledge belongs in a mathematics classroom. It raises the questions: what, exactly, counts as mathematics? And what are the purposes and uses of mathematics education? At the very least, this is a deeper conversation worth having than simply shouting that the authors of the framework are themselves racist.