The politics of math curriculum

Posted on July 22, 2021 in Education Debates

Source: — Authors: , – Opinion/Contributors
July 21, 2021.   By Mitzie Hunter, Natasha Henry, Contributors

Last week, the Ontario Minister of Education abruptly and unilaterally removed language from the new math curriculum. The terms “colonialism,” “anti-racism,” “anti-oppression,” and “the use of math to address social and environmental issues such as inequity and discrimination” were taken out in the over night revision.

In doing so, the Ford government has widened the debate about race, equity, and institutional racism, all in a response to a cadre of unqualified curriculum critics who emanated from its conservative base.

A new era has dawned and it’s too late to turn back. We have seen the horror of Indigenous children buried in unmarked graves; we witnessed the murder of George Floyd, a Black man, on television; we are still processing how a Muslim family walking in their neighbourhood could be mowed down by a pickup truck and killed. We are weathering a global pandemic together that has reinforced our interdependence and revealed structural inequalities in our society.

Tackling the curriculum is central to moving forward on anti-Black racism, Truth and Reconciliation with Indigenous peoples and stemming the tide of rising anti-Asian, antisemitism and anti-Muslim hate.

The Grade 9 mathematics curriculum lays the foundation for destreaming in high school, intended to remedy glaring systemic disparities in placement, access to programs and pathways, and academic outcomes for Indigenous, Black, and poorer students.

While mathematical theory is objective, teaching mathematics in our educational system and how it is experienced is complicated by layers of identity. This is true for mathematics, science, history, and all other curricular subjects.

Math has also been used to normalize racism and white supremacy, which undergird systemic inequities, including biased algorithms and the disproportionate educational streaming of Black and Indigenous students.

This is not the first time the Ford government has removed language in documents. They removed “Black and other racialized” from the description of eligibility for COVID-19 vaccines in April. What do these actions of removing language that supports equitable practices reveal?

If Premier Ford and Education Minister Stephen Lecce are afraid to include this language in the revised math curriculum, we have no hope that they will include the mandated learning expectations on Black people in Canada or make Indigenous curriculum mandatory.

The refusal to explicitly name colonization, anti-racism, and anti-oppression, particularly after the past 18 months, conveys a commitment to maintaining Eurocentricity. Such a curriculum is a mechanism of ongoing colonial and nation-building projects that privileges European knowledge production, ideologies, and experiences in Canada.

The changes in the curriculum aimed to be more inclusive of the ways that different cultures produce mathematical thinking so students can see all peoples as knowledge producers and contributors and teach how math can be used to identify and address social issues.

This is an important effort in addressing racist views and actions. We continue to see what the ongoing failure to do so has resulted in, in our society. The circumvention of an established process that experts and educators engaged in, writing and reviewing of the math curriculum, is an insult to them and to the parents who have persistently advocated for change.

It’s not “just math” as the premier claims. The curriculum is about so much more.

To say to focus on these matters in other classes and to “stick to math” in math class negates the connection to math in all subjects and the ways that social issues are “real world” issues in the lives of students. Siloing subjects is a Eurocentric approach to learning. Improving students’ math literacy, particularly data science, is a vital critical thinking skill that is needed in today’s “working world” to interrogate the status quo and to create new conditions and possibilities. As society continues to race towards artificial intelligence, automation and big data, these issues will become more pervasive.

It’s time for Ontario to shed the past when it comes to the curriculum and pivot to the changes that are needed now. We should never miss an opportunity to take action against systemic racism. Ford and Lecce should reverse course again for the good of all Ontario students and Canada’s future.

Mitzie Hunter is the Liberal MPP Scarborough-Guildwood and Natasha Henry is president of the Ontario Black History Society.

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