Oregon Schools Confuse Racism and Math

by | Jul 2, 2021 |

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Last month, the Oregon Legislature passed a bill to suspend a requirement for K-12 students through 2024 to show proficiency in reading, writing, and math — the aptly named ”essential skills” — as a requirement for getting a high school diploma.

The Oregon Department of Education (ODE) went beyond the suspension of math proficiency testing to introduce a teacher training document called ”The Mo(ve)ment to Prioritize Antiracist Mathematics” which asserts that ”white supremacy culture infiltrates math classrooms in everyday teacher actions.”

Based upon Critical Race Theory (CRT) philosophy, the document also says, ”[c]oupled with the beliefs that underlie these actions, they perpetuate educational harm on Black, Latinx, and multilingual students, denying them full access to the world of mathematics.”

CRT is premised on the destructive theory that systemic racism based upon each individual’s skin color is ingrained in our society and a fact of American life.

One lesson plan titled ”A Pathway to Math Equity Micro-Course” states, ”Within this course, math educators are guided through monthly practical exercises to reflect on their own biases and teaching practices to better recognize and subsequently deconstruct white supremacy culture in their classrooms.”

An example of white supremacy cited is the common request teachers make for students to ”show their work.”

The ODE material charges that this white supremacy is reinforced by the belief that ”teachers are teachers and students are learners,” ingraining cultural ideals of ”paternalism and power-holding” in teachers.

Furthermore, ”valuing independent work,” they claim, is white supremacy culture because ”[independent work] reinforces individualism and … does not give value to collectivism and community understanding, and fosters conditions for competition and individual success.”

As observed by the organization Oregonians for Liberty in Education: ”This material put forth by the Oregon Department of Education is an attempt to strip liberties from students and teachers by reducing them to nothing more than the color of their skin and lowering the bar for academic achievement.”

Meanwhile, Oregon Senate Bill 744 directs the state Department of Education to suspend a graduating testing requirement of student knowledge in math and reading/writing skills in pursuit of a diploma.

The Essential Skills Graduation Requirement established a decade ago was suspended during the pandemic as a way to assist students who went through a year of distance learning. Supporters of the bill now want to take the suspension beyond the pandemic.

Supporters also say testing on essential skills has historically hurt those with poor test-taking skills who would otherwise graduate.

Republicans in both chambers of the Legislature pushed back on the bill.

Oregon House Minority Leader Christine Drazan said: “The approach for Senate Bill 744 is to, in fact, lower our expectations for our kids. This is the wrong time to do that when we have had this year of social isolation and lost learning. It’s the wrong thing to do in this moment.”

Drazan added: “If it had just been a testing bill, then I would have been supportive of it, but what we were doing was taking a list of essential skills and saying we’re not going to hold our kids to these standards anymore.”

The bill awaits the signature of Democrat Gov. Kate Brown.

Critics rightly worry that the real purpose of initiatives like Oregon’s Senate Bill 744 is to enable powerful teachers’ unions to declare more and more students proficient without being accountable for preparing them with essential skills to compete in an increasingly complex and challenging world.

Programs that attempt to cover poor teaching performance by artificially increasing graduation rates reduce a high school diploma to little more than a participation trophy.

Doing so under cover of ”equity” is a great injustice to all students – regardless of race or ethnicity – as well as a grave disservice to their larger local and national communities.

The Oregon experience is certainly not a unique low-performance threshold failure. A pre-COVID 2018 study from The New Teacher Project (TNTP), a national nonprofit focused on teacher development and educational programming, indicates otherwise.

Called The Opportunity Myth, the research reveals a phenomenon that’s taken hold across the U.S., an all-too-prevalent state and local prioritization of pursuing operational efficiency by pushing large volumes of kids through the system.

As students finish high school and either enroll in college or head straight to the workforce, they’re finding themselves poorly prepared for whatever path they choose.

”They’re planning their futures on the belief that doing well in school creates opportunities — that showing up, doing the work, and meeting their teachers’ expectations will prepare them for what’s next,” the study notes, but something along the way is not working.

TNTP data showed that across the U.S., 40% of students who enrolled in college (including 66% of Black students and 53% of Latinx students) ended up having to take a remedial course to re-learn skills they were supposed to have mastered in high school.

This preparation deficiency not only placed them behind in their degrees and added costs to already steep tuitions … those students requiring remedial courses were also 74% more likely to drop out than their peers.

The TNTP study also noted with particular concern that 70 percent of those recent high school graduates had career goals that require at least a college degree. It also found that many employers also reported that new hires out of high school often lack basic on-the-job skills.

TNTP CEO Dan Weisberg observed: ”As we visited classrooms around the country, we found teachers working hard individually to help their students, but we also saw pretty low-quality assignments kids were getting, and instruction that doesn’t give them a chance to do deep thinking and the type of work they’re going to need to do in order to succeed.”

More often than not, teachers weren’t assigning work that would bring students up to their grade level. As a result, students only demonstrated grade-level mastery on their assignments 17% of the time.

Weisberg concluded that kids tend to do well when given work that challenges them. A key part of the problem is that low expectations on the part of teachers cause them to issue assignments that don’t require students to stretch.

As Weisberg instructs us to recognize, ”It doesn’t cost one penny more to have higher expectations for kids, to actually believe that kids — low-income kids, kids of color, English-language learners — can succeed.”

Adding destructively stereotypic critical race theory-premised excuses to dumb down those fragile expectations will lead only to more costly and inequitable failures.

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Larry Bell is an endowed professor of space architecture at the University of Houston. He founded the Sasakawa International Center for Space Architecture (SICSA) and the space architecture graduate program. He is the author of several books, including "Reinventing Ourselves: How Technology is Rapidly and Radically Transforming Humanity" (2019), "Thinking Whole: Rejecting Half-Witted Left & Right Brain Limitations" (2018), "Reflections on Oceans and Puddles: One Hundred Reasons to be Enthusiastic, Grateful and Hopeful” (2017), "Cosmic Musings: Contemplating Life Beyond Self" (2016), and "Scared Witless: Prophets and Profits of Climate Doom" (2015). He is currently working on a new book with Buzz Aldrin, "Beyond Footprints and Flagpoles."

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