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Can Advanced Math Be Racist?

Will Virginia's new program bring students' math skills up or down?

By:  |  May 2, 2021  |    546 Words

(Photo by JHU Sheridan Libraries/Gado/Getty Images)

Does advanced math discriminate? That’s what people in Virginia are asking after the state’s education department decided to reduce accelerated math programs. The department says the new program will promote modernization and equality.

The Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) recently announced it will cut advanced math programs until 11th grade. This will “improve equity in mathematics learning opportunities,” according to the VDOE. The replacement program, called the Virginia Mathematics Pathways Initiative (VMPI), would take the material from advanced classes Algebra 1, Algebra 2, and Geometry and add it to the standard math program. The VDOE says the change will modernize the math curriculum to focus on skills that will be needed in the future jobs market, like analyzing statistics.

Why is this decision so controversial? Some have suggested the change is motivated by the idea that students of some racial or social groups are less likely to get accepted into advanced classes. An official from the VMPI said the new curriculum “will be one of the most transformational things we can do in Virginia to advance equity” among students.

Liberty Nation’s Pennel Bird described the situation that has some observers upset:

“No accelerated math until 11th grade, which leaves out high achieving kids who are doing well in math and may have future careers in math … What undergirds this is the idea that there are a fair amount of kids and often some minority kids who don’t do well in math. There could be a number of reasons for that … So rather than try to encourage [improvement] in some way, what they’re doing is saying that, because it looks like it besmirches the achievement of those groups [not in the advanced classes], we’re going to get rid of it.”

The VDOE aims to give students a more equal level of math skills – but will this improve life for those who struggle with math? The decision is causing controversy because some are worried that it will just make the advanced students fall behind.

One concerned parent from Loudoun County, Virginia, believes the VMPI will “lower standards for students in the name of equity.”

Virginia delegate candidate Mike Allers asserts that VDOE “didn’t level the playing field – they destroyed it.” Allers suggests that the decision to limit accelerated math programs is actually racist itself:

“This decision from the VDOE stunts natural growth, choice, and progression for students and is incredibly demeaning, arrogant, and racist in assuming that children of color cannot reach advanced classes in math. The racial achievement gap in schools will never be closed if higher opportunities are not provided for all students …”

According to Allers, the decision will result in lower standards and “mediocrity” for all students, no matter their race or class.

Responding to the criticism, Virginia has said that it will use “differentiated” teaching to teach students of different levels in the same class by tailoring learning to each individual.

Is this a realistic strategy that can keep students of all levels engaged? Will it help students of all backgrounds improve their math skills, or will it hinder those who have a natural gift for the subject? American students will be able to see what happens when the plan is put into place from 2023 onward.

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