Common Core And The Politics Of Math Education

There is a common illusion, an illusion fostered by those who wish to see mathematics and “hard sciences” as being above the political fray and not subject to withering criticism for political grounds, that some aspects of human study are separate from politics. Despite the fact that mathematics itself has some very intriguing philosophical presuppositions and implications, and a common struggle between the many and the one that lead to difficulties in every other field [1], there is a sense of unwarranted pride and prestige that people involved in mathematics and the hard sciences have about being somehow more absolute and less “soft” than areas like history or the arts.

This illusion has been punctured recently by a quarrel over math education that has demonstrated the political nature of mathematics as it is taught. Although I am a person who has long had interests in various aspects of mathematics [2], mathematics education is not something I have had to experience for a while. My experiences have only been on the student side, and as a student who was fairly competent at mathematics, especially in areas of probability and statistics and number theory, I did not run into any particularly serious difficulties with regards to my own math education. Nor was mathematics education an area of particular political controversy during my youth and young adulthood when I was learning areas of technical competence, unimpeded by political agendas in the field. The long period of quietude concerning such matters lulled many into believing that the area of study of mathematics itself was apolitical, not realizing that any endeavor that includes humanity has the potential to be political if people choose to make it so.

It is difficult to gain an understanding of what Common Core is really about. It would appear that the reason for such reforms in the first place are due to hand wringing over the weakness of American test scores compared with other industrialized nations. For a variety of reasons, including having far fewer hours of classroom instruction and less homework (at least before high school) than most other nations, Americans have tended to lag far behind most other nations. Among large portions of our population, there is little parental concern for the education of children nor has the expectation of education leading to professional success been met by those who have tended to view education in a positive light [3]. Education in the United States is in the midst of a societal crisis where increasing student debt burdens and decreasing opportunities for social advancement and the increasing use of schools to seek to inculcate a harmful and negative political agenda have all combined to threaten the legitimacy of public school educators.

When one looks at examples of common core mathematics posted by parents, it is unclear exactly why the math is done in such a complicated fashion. To be sure, math education is not necessarily the most exciting sort of work anyway. Disciplining the mind to think in ways that are precise and organized does not come naturally, and word problems and equations have long been the bane of existence for young people. To those of us who have disciplined our minds to think in such a fashion, it often comes naturally to us so that it is hard to understand exactly why others have problems with it. Even given this context, though, the homework assignments shown by parents are somewhat nonsensical and occasionally deeply troubling [4]. When one sees what is going in classrooms, it is clear that what has been promoted as an effort to increase the logical nature of math education has dark political undertones engaged in a particularly unpleasant aspect of our culture wars.

Yet, to hear sponsored puff pieces on common core, on the other hand, common core education in mathematics is designed at explaining the reasons why certain matters are taught. To be sure, this is an area of weakness in most mathematics education, as the practical benefits and applications of math are not well understood by most students (and, presumably, by most teachers). I recently read one puff piece, for example, which looked at a sample common core assignment that made it easier to understand subtraction as the distance between two numbers, avoiding such confusion as carrying over numbers. Of course, this particular puff piece did not show the more nonsensical assignments, and its discussion of the comparative simplicity of some aspects of its education did not square with the reality that there are some aspects of instruction that are unnecessarily complicated and would seem to discourage students (and their parents) from the study of mathematics, which would be contrary to our best interests as a nation in competing with other nations as well as in educating well-qualified scientists and engineers and in encouraging people to appreciate mathematics and respect those with technical skill in it.

Given this nature, what are we to believe? For one, given the politically motivated environment among public education and its leadership (whether in local unions or in the Department of Education), one can assume that political motivation trumps educational interest in those who are pushing such reforms. The actual experience of parents is to be believed over the puff pieces sponsored by politically suspect figures. That said, as is often the case, there is a legitimate concern that is used as a fig leaf for bogus reform efforts. These legitimate concerns can be addressed without massive and ineffective reforms, but progressive efforts at reform often do not seek to address real issues, as that would tend to decrease the need for government efforts once they are successfully addressed. A fair approach is two-fold, in seeking to deal with the real concerns that are used to buttress a superficial justification of reform efforts as well as an effort to counteract the deeper Gramscian political logic of the implementation of such efforts. Such behavior, though, only makes one even more cynical about the omnipresent nature of political struggle within contemporary society in all aspects. In such an atmosphere, it becomes increasingly difficult to trust authorities. Perhaps that too is part of the larger purpose.

[1] See, for example:

[2] See, for example:

[3] See, for example:

[4] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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