I read a news article by a tenured university professor who asserted that the perception that whites are more math proficient than minorities perpetuates “white privilege” and discriminates against minorities. The professor alleged that whites have an “unearned privilege” because math skills such as algebra and geometry are generally associated with whites. She attributed the “so-called achievement gap” between minorities and white students as a product of implicit or explicit racism due to white privilege. The professor said, in effect, that just because someone is good at math doesn’t mean they are really that smart.

She also said that “all knowledge is ‘relational,’ asserting that ‘Things cannot be known objectively; they must be known subjectively.’” What she meant is that there are no mathematical truths as we know them because students perceive things through their own cultural and political lenses which may be quite different than standard (“white”) perceptions.

These are very provocative, if not shocking, assertions, and, since the article seems to have been generated by a Conservative site, I investigated those claims myself to determine if they were misrepresenting the professor’s views.

I can report to you that the professor does believe in those views and that there is more, and worse.

The professor, Rochelle Gutiérrez, is a full professor at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign where she teaches mathematics education. She is not a mathematician, but she specializes in “equity issues in mathematics education, paying particular attention to how race, class, and language affect teaching and learning”. Her graduate degrees were in education, with, I assume, a specialty in the teaching of mathematics. She has received many awards and honors and is well published.

What brought her to public scrutiny was the publication of a new scholastic text, Building Support for Scholarly Practices in Mathematics Methods, an anthology of articles on teaching mathematics which included one of her articles, “Challenges in Mathematics Teacher Education from a (Mostly) Constructivist Perspective.”

My criticism of Professor Gutiérrez is based on a scholarly article she wrote, “The Sociopolitical Turn on Mathematics Education”, published in the Journal for Research in Mathematics Education, 2013, Col. 44, No. 1, 37-68. It outlines her views on mathematics education and supports the quotes in the news article I read.

Professor Gutiérrez sees mathematics education as a power play by white people to, consciously or unconsciously, perpetuate earned or unearned “white privilege”. Because minority students are perceived to have an “achievement gap” in mathematics, we must challenge our current “binary” view of education (e.g., bad scores vs. good scores) and look at how students “identify” themselves and understand the cultural and social power systems through which students see the world. She sees mathematics education as a political tool to achieve social justice and student betterment (self-actualization). That is, teachers need to teach “social justice mathematics”. To her, everything in the classroom is political.

She refers to success in math as the “ability myth” which is used to perpetuate white domination. Teachers, she argues, need to look for student success not just from things like tests of knowledge, but also “ways in which students are being creative and imaginative when doing mathematics.” How, she doesn’t say. But to ignore them is implicit racism. Teachers need to be more empathetic to these students who are just discovering their identities and not view nonperforming students as inferior. I was not able to discover how her ideas could be applied in the classroom.

She goes on to say that there is no “rational, universal logic that allows mathematics to operate outside of individuals, morals, or power relations.” In other words, math is “contextual”, not a universal truth (such as 1+1 may not = 2?). As an old fashioned rationalist, I believe that knowledge can be determined through reason and logic rather than through her incomprehensible post-constructivist junk philosophy1. I actually believe that 1 + 1 will always equal 22, and I depend on that verifiable universal reality every day in my life.

Professor Gutiérrez has fallen into an intellectual black hole. She is a proponent of various philosophies that see race and politics in every aspect of our lives and her remedy to the achievement gap is to politicize the academic environment and change the rules by which “success” is something other than proficiency in mathematics as measured by standard tests. These ideas are now pouring out of academia, especially from neo-Marxist sociology and anthropology departments.

What is missing from her work is any actual research that proves the efficacy of her ideas about how to teach mathematics to “marginalized” students.

I have a solution for Professor Gutiérrez that will save her from the drudgery of empirical research. All she has to do is look at the data from public charter schools like Achievement First or KIPP. 85% to 95% of their students are minorities, yet they perform significantly higher in math than students in public schools. They are not allowed to cherry-pick their students (e.g., admission to KIPP is by lottery), but they do ask parents to commit to support their children’s educational goals.

Their results are outstanding. For Achievement First elementary students in Brooklyn, New York, 67% of their students score at or above mandated state math proficiency requirements versus only 28% for public schools. For their middle school students, it is 75% versus 14%. At KIPP New York, 66% of their 3rd graders test as either proficient or advanced in math versus 25% for public schools; for 8th graders, it was 65% versus 13%. At KIPP’s NYC high school, 95% of students took the SAT with an average score of 1356; 90% went to college. These two nonprofits operate a lot of these schools with similar results.

If Professor Gutiérrez wished to make a valuable contribution to the mathematics education of minority students perhaps she should ask why the public charter schools students do vastly better than public schools. They have the same kids and their students have to take the same state mandated achievement tests.

The answer is that the “achievement gap” is created by poorly run public schools. One of the main differences between these public charter schools and public schools is that charter school teachers are not members of a teachers union and underperforming teachers can be fired. They have also developed their own successful teaching methodologies and curricula. Their administration is effective, lean, and efficient, not bureaucratic. They can budget their own schools and, it turns out, they can achieve better education for the same or less money than public schools. Also, being the nice, dedicated people that they are, both KIPP and Advanced First share their methods with anyone who want them.

The ideas espoused by Professor Gutiérrez do nothing to help children succeed as math students and if anything, they are destructive to learning mathematics. The world outside of academia requires knowledge-workers who understand mathematics, and telling kids they fail because they are victims of racism rather than victims of their public school or that mathematics is all relative and that there are no truths in numbers is a road to failure.

1. For those of you who wish to explore further the Post-structuralism that Professor Gutiérrez espouses, you should start with the basics of the movement, Deconstructionism. The linked article to Wikipedia gives a pretty good picture of what it means, if you can make it out. It is opaque at best. Basically, the Deconstructionists take apart language and the meaning of words in texts to contemplate the underlying meaning and “structures” behind text–maybe. Jacques Derrida is the french philosopher who developed this idea and he tells us that he really cannot define the term. There is a lot of Platonism, Nietzsche, and Hegel in his thinking. If you can figure it out, best wishes. Structuralism and Post-structuralism are outgrowths of Deconstructionism. Without boring you with the details, the Wiki article on post-structuralism says, “A Post-structuralist approach argues that to understand an object (e.g., a text), it is necessary to study both the object itself and the systems of knowledge that produced the object.” In other words, meaning is not just in the word, but the cultural, historical, and political structures behind words and meaning. These philosophies, in my rationalist Aristotelian view of the world, are mostly anti-rationalist nonsense. They are tautologies (circular reasoning) that make sense (or not make sense) only to themselves and have no relationship to the real world. I don’t think anyone is really capable of understanding it. In fact there is a hilarious article by Chip Morningstar who ridiculed these guys. He does a good job of trying to explain Deconstructionism. He calls them “epistemologically challenged” and I agree. So now you can see the milieu in which Professor Gutiérrez operates. Her pieces seem to be mostly opinions with lots of citations to others in her field. I don’t believe there is a lot of intellectual rigor in this group, especially since they are keen to write off the rationalist philosophers and the rationalist tradition of civilization. That gives them a lot of cover to say whatever comes into their heads and they don’t have to worry bout being challenged because no one reads academic papers anyway. 

2. Please don’t write in about quantum mathematics. Assume ceteris paribus. My math and I operate in the Newtonian mechanistic world.