We Are Mad About the Wrong Thing

"If Frederick got two beatings per day how many beatings did he get in one week?"

"Each tree had 56 oranges. If 8 slaves pick them equally, then how much would each slave pick?"

These were two of three math problems assigned to 100 3rd graders that recently provoked outrage from parents in a community outside of Atlanta, Georgia. The most incendiary question referenced Frederick Douglass, renowned abolitionist, famed author, orator and advocate for human rights. The perspective expressed in the questions is devoid of any reference to the humanity of the enslaved, the immorality of the institution of slavery, or the economic, social and political advantages slave owners derived from the practice. The passive voice used in the question referencing Frederick Douglass avoids addressing the brutality of the slave owner who beat him twice a day for an entire week and trivializes the condition of slavery. The controversial questions make one wonder: if this is how slavery is being presented in math class, how is the subject being treated in social studies classes?

The anger of the parents is justified. However, the episode should prompt an investigation of other more subtle and systemic curricular choices that distort history and indoctrinate children to practice and allow discrimination. New laws in New Hampshire empower parents and citizens to challenge aspects of the curriculum they find objectionable. Similar legislation in other states would allow parents and citizens to challenge those who are responsible for curricular choices before an incident like the one that occurred in Georgia arises. Parents should advocate for a curriculum that is expansive, inclusive and rooted in historical truth. At a local level, they should seek to influence curricular choices as they are being made. At a national level, they should insist on the inclusion of procedural and substantive safeguards in the pending Reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act, to ensure that curricula are historically accurate and reflective of the diversity that characterizes the American experience. To simply call for the termination of the teacher who authored the offending math questions and to label the questions and their author "racist," without more, is so much sound and fury, and will accomplish very little.

It is commendable that the teachers at the Georgia elementary school attempted to integrate social studies into the math curriculum. That kind of cross pollination and inter-disciplinary approach to teaching improves the quality of education for students. Furthermore, teachers should teach students about slavery. It plays a central role in American history, and it provides an important context for students to understand existing social, political and economic realities. The incident should be understood in the context of a national trend towards "sanitizing" American history. In 2010 Arizona HB2281 banned racial and ethnic studies from the K-12 public and charter school curricula. Today, Tennessee activists are demanding that state textbooks omit references to the fact that this nation's founders included slave owners.

To be sure, teachers cannot teach everything, but curricular choices are not neutral decisions. The math questions, as disturbing as they are, present only the tip of a very large iceberg that is off the radar screen of many parents and citizens. People need to know who is making curricular choices and be aware of the social and political perspectives that influence those decisions. The resignation of the teacher who authored the questions, and his racial identity, are distractions, and his resignation should not end the controversy. The issue is far bigger than one teacher and an ill-conceived homework assignment. The incident should raise parent's awareness about what their children are learning in classrooms across the nation and focus attention on those who make curricular decisions. Parents must become more engaged in influencing and monitoring the substance of their children's education. All of us should be aware that what teachers teach, and how they teach it, is informed by their own perspectives, even in a math problem.