Five Messages From the "Slavery Math Problems"

News of the "slavery math problems" assigned to 8-year-olds in Gwinnett County, Georgia, a few days ago, has left the entire country in disbelief. Parents, educators and the general public are wondering how any qualified teacher could have posed these questions. I am perturbed by the fact that these questions were posed by a school system that prides itself on valuing "the important role education plays in building a thriving, global community" and having "the finest teachers in the profession."

It seems as though the homework assignment was part of a longer narrative that led to specific homework questions like, "Each tree had 56 oranges. If eight slaves pick them equally, then how much would each slave pick?" and "If Frederick [who apparently was a slave] got two beatings per day, how many beatings did he get in one week?"

While most people have rightfully taken offense to the references to slavery and beatings in the math homework problems, what I have found more problematic than the homework assignment is that there seems to have been some precursor to assigning these math problems. Other math problems along these lines may have been posed in the class, and students may have had to answer these types of questions before they took home the math assignment that parents discovered.

I can only imagine the experiences of a student who refused to answer a question about slaves picking oranges, and who was reprimanded for not participating, or viewed by the teacher as a "difficult student." I can also imagine the more likely scenario of a student who was choosing to actively participate, and firmly stated, "The slaves picked seven oranges each" to smiles and positive affirmation by the teacher.

While speculation about what may have happened in the classroom does not give insight into the specific scenario at hand, the responses by the school district gives much insight into what the thinking is at the school/district level, and what messages parents, students, and the general public should be taking from this story.

Sloan Roach, who is the Gwinnett County School District spokesperson, gave a statement about this story that mentions an attempt by teachers to "incorporate social studies lessons into the math problems." She then mentioned that the problem with the assignment was that it "lacked an appropriate historical context." Unfortunately, that assessment of the situation barely scratches the surface of the complexity of the issue at hand.

In response, I have written five messages that we can take away from this case -- to arm ourselves with, as an informed public, to address the larger issue of race and education in schools across the country.

1) Connect Issues of Race

Parents must recognize that this story in Gwinnett, Georgia is not an anomaly. There are issues related to race, class, and education that permeate the fabric of our schools, affect the teaching and learning in classrooms. These issues may only emerge in national media in cases like this one -- where an alert parent paid attention. However, for every scenario where a race-based education issue emerges in the form of a youth arrest in school, nooses being hung on cartoon characters in school newsletters , or a scenario like this one, there are many others that never see the light of the mainstream news. There is a deep issue related to cultural insensitivity and a lack of acknowledgement of the severity of race issues in schools that we must bring to light. It is important for us to be able to link seemingly separate incidents related to race, class, and gender, and connect them for the school and the public so that they can be addressed

2) Address Racial History

The response of the school spokesperson in this case, and her use of the district's effort to incorporate social studies into math lessons as a way to justify or explain the slavery references in math problems is problematic. Furthermore, it is an example of how the language of teaching and buzzwords in education simply serve as a way to explain away poor teaching and offensive practices.

In this case, and in many others cases, teaching across subject areas, using vivid examples in teaching, and even using imagery in constructing questions, simply masks larger issues in the school that are not being addressed. Parents and the public must be aware of this fact, and push for more focus on the causes for race issues in classrooms.

3) Get To The Root of the Problem

In this case, the school district agreed to shred the assignment and offered an apology for its insensitivity. For many people this is a sufficient solution to the problem. I argue that the shredding of the assignment is inconsequential if the reason why a teacher or teachers find it appropriate to pose such questions to begin with has not been addressed. There must be a push to shred the root of the problem and not just the assignment.

4) Review Your Child's Schoolwork For Hidden Agenda

The most powerful thing about this case are the vigilant parents that saw the math problems as they were going over homework with their children. In particular, there were two African American fathers who discovered the questions in the math assignment, and who contacted the school district.

These parents serve as an example to others, and provide us all with an additional reason to be involved with what our children are learning in school, what assignments they are bringing home, and what messages they may be receiving from the assignments they are completing.

5) Demand Cultural Sensitivity in Teacher Training

The final message I will share from this story is that the teacher(s) who gave this assignment are touted by the district as being part of the "finest in the profession," but may not be aware of the implications of their racial ignorance on the students. Teacher hiring focuses solely on the degrees teachers have earned, their GPA's, and their knowledge about their content areas, but do not evaluate or prepare them on race, class, and urban issues. In many cases, these teachers lack ongoing professional development on race, class and gender issues in schools.

To be the "finest teacher in the profession" one must have ongoing training beyond math, science or subject area. Schools, parents, and the public must demand more from the people who teach our children.