Last May, a 15-year-old Black girl in Michigan known only by her middle name, Grace, was put in juvenile detention for not completing her homework. Teens not turning in their homework is hardly an anomaly. Other teens are scolded, lose marks or, at worst, get detention for this offence. But Grace was incarcerated. The difference? She’s Black.
Grace’s story is just one example of how the American education system and American policing tactics converge.
The education system has a dangerous obsession with rule-following for Black children that cuts short opportunities, just as policing has a dangerous obsession with rule-following for Black people that cuts short lives.
This is particularly evident in math class.
Black students often receive compliments in math class for rule-following. In lower-income schools (which are often predominately Black), students are encouraged to follow math rules and formulae without questioning the teacher or the math itself, leaving them no room to ask questions or screw up.
Teachers are more likely to judge their Black students’ math abilities based on non-academic qualities, such as behavior and physical characteristics. A decade ago, Common Core math was introduced to emphasize understanding over rote learning, but the delivery of standards varies across schools, classrooms and teachers, depending both on who is being assessed and who is doing the assessing.
In higher-income schools (which are often predominately white), understanding is often prioritized over procedure, and students learn math in more abstract ways, such as understanding why one uses a certain formula, instead of just being told to use it “because that’s the formula.” They also are shown how these abstract concepts contribute to the higher mathematics typically seen in college settings, like calculus and imaginary numbers.
This is especially apparent in gifted classrooms. Black children make up 9 percent of students in gifted education, even though they are 15 percent of the overall student population. Higher-income students are encouraged to seek help, ask questions and think outside the box. They are more likely to be assessed on their merits and performance.
Black students are disproportionately placed into the lower-tiered math tracks in high school and college. The lower-tiered tracks are more likely to repeat the same basic computational skills over and over again — something that computers have been able to do more efficiently than humans for decades.
Just as U.S. policing traces its roots to controlling Black people, this racial bias in math class grooms Black children to understand that they mustn’t step out of line; that they must do things perfectly the first time, without any additional help. They’re taught that failure is unacceptable rather than what it actually is: an essential part of learning. It’s a system that holds up the mythical “math person” (think Matt Damon in “Good Will Hunting”), a concept rooted in race and gender stereotypes, that makes Black students — especially Black girls — believe that they must be exceptional in order to receive the same opportunities as everyone else.
A recent New York Times analysis of discipline data found that Black girls are “over five times more likely than white girls to be suspended at least once from school … and three times more likely to receive referrals to law enforcement.” The article cited an example specific to math class: A Black high school junior was sent to the hallway to “calm down” after asking her teacher to review a math lesson.
Americans would not be able to function without the contributions of Black people in mathematics. Valerie Thomas’ technology led to the 3D movies that make Hollywood so much money. Gladys West’s mathematical modeling led to the GPS systems in our phones that we rely on to go anywhere. Lonnie Johnson went from NASA superstar to inventor of the beloved Super Soaker. The list goes on.
Why do we never mention these names in our math classes? Doing so would show all students that math does not belong only to white people. Being more inclusive is just the first step in the systemic changes that we urgently need.
Instead of resigning ourselves to work within a broken system, we must vow to change it. That means questioning where funding is being prioritized, allocating resources to the recruitment of Black educators, and subsidizing research and training in anti-racist education. We must ensure that every educator in our classrooms receives training on how biases work, is made acutely aware of the butterfly effects of their actions in the classroom, and, above all, is held accountable. We must not only demand better. We must all commit to doing better for K-16 math education.
If we continue to view math class as only a logical, cold, isolated school subject, we will never recognize that it is a reflection of the larger world. Math class does not exist in a vacuum; it is both a reflection of society and an opportunity to change our society for generations to come. We have the chance to teach far more than just fractions, quadratics and rote memorization — we can show students that thinking creatively, asking questions and following their curiosity are behaviors worthy of rewards, not punishments.
Michole Washington is a doctoral student in mathematics education at the University of Michigan, where she critically investigates informal STEM learning environments created for Black students. She is the co-founder of STEMulation Escape Room, an edutainment production company.
Vanessa Vakharia is a math educator and an advocate for incorporating emotional wellness into math pedagogy. She is the founder The Math Guru, a boutique math & science tutoring studio;the host of Math Therapy Podcast; and the author of Math Hacks.