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[Susan notes: There is a glitch in the system. This letter was NOT published in the Wall Street Journal, but no matter how many times I try to fix it, the system keeps claiming "published." The letter was sent to the Wall Street Journal in response to an op-ed by Diane Ravitch. The author makes a good point: Ravitch did lump a lot of separate issues under the general title of Ethnomathematics.]

Submitted to Wall Street Journal but not published

To the editor

I feel I must respond to Diane Ravitch’s article in the Wall Street Journal on June 20, repeated online June 26, regarding Ethnomathematics. The article dealt with many matters of mathematics teaching and learning appearing to place them all under the banner of Ethnomathematics. Many of them demand response.

In 1989 the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics became the first national curriculum based organization to issue a set of standards, The Curriculum and Evaluation Standards for School Mathematics. This effort was praised by our then Education President George H.W. Bush as he and other business and government leaders tried to suggest that standards be agreed upon by other groups representing other disciplines.

Dr. Ravitch’s suggestion that these NCTM Standards “disparaged basic skills like addition, subtraction, multiplication and division” would be humorous if it weren’t for the fact that there are people who believe it to be true. It’s not. In suggesting that there were other ways to help kids achieve these skills besides constant drill, the Council was falsely accused by some of depreciating this aspect of mathematical power that all students deserve. The NCTM Standards Advocates the teaching of those basic skills in the context of problem solving and applications and not as mindless isolated facts.

It is true that one area of study which could help students learn mathematics comes from the relatively new field of study, Ethnomathematics. In an attempt to place Ethnomathematics into context, a description might be useful. The website of the International Study Group for Ethnomathematics speaks of the subject as describing “the mathematical practices of identifiable cultural groups. It is sometimes used specifically for small-scale indigenous societies, but in its broadest sense the ‘ethno’ prefix can refer to any group -- national societies, labor communities, religious traditions, professional classes, and so on.”

In regard to learning, teaching, or using mathematics as a means toward social justice I’d suggest that “beauty and power” of mathematics can be used as a tool for peaceful and non-aggressive behavior as easily as it can be harnessed for war and destruction, as it was so often during the last century. That being said, however, it’s important to recognize that ethnomathematics is a branch of study, not a teaching technique and as such it has no political leanings. It recognizes the inherent value of math and contributes to its appreciation, rather than simply using math as an excuse to interject teachers’ political beliefs into the classroom discourse. Ethnomathematics can be used to broaden the areas of life touched by mathematics; it is, in effect, an attempt to democratize the ability to apply mathematics.

In regard to the use of ethnomathematics in schools, don’t worry. I’m sad to say that there’s not that much of it going on right now, but maybe there should be. There is research emerging that points to academic value of placing mathematics in cultural context. The discipline is still young, but think of the possibility of using ideas of culture to help teach math and math helping kids understand their own and other cultures.

It’s been almost 15 years since Dr. Ravitch came out so strongly in favor of Multiculturalism in an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education (October, 1990, to be exact). She should be pleased to know that Multiculturalism doesn’t have to be relegated to the occasional Langston Hughes poem in English class, and finding the major agricultural products of Burkina Faso in Social Studies or Taco day in the cafeteria. It can include some interesting as well as useful ideas from the world of mathematics, perhaps some historical references. Maybe math could become more interesting to more students who may come to believe that they might be entitled to a piece of the action. Career education including the math that’s used by certain tradespeople could fit under the Ethnomathematics banner.

But if she want a real problem to work on, I’d suggest Dr. Ravitch consider this. We still have quite an achievement gap in our schools in math. We’re still more successful teaching middle and upper class white kids math, than we are teaching kids of color or the poor. Not only is this a moral outrage, but it’s economically disadvantageous for us to waste the talent of so many of our citizens. What if making math more relevant to the lives of our students and their families could become one of the tools used to close this gap? Would it still be an object of Dr. Ravitch’s ridicule? Remember it was not too many years ago when we saw a similar gap in math when we disaggregated achievement and participation data by gender. It was an extraordinary effort by many parties, teachers, administrators, curriculum developers, publishers, guidance counselors, the NCTM, parents and the girls themselves, that has gone a long way toward eliminating that gap. We attempted to make math more relevant to girls by using role models and by showing how math could help make their lives better. It seems to be working.

If all the problems of American Education could be solved by doing things like we used to do and by everybody working a little harder, what a wonderful world it would be. It’s like another idea that’s going around today: Let’s test everybody more! That should make them smarter. But somehow, simplistic ideas have a cost. Earlier this month a proposal was floated in the New York State Education Department that would allow districts to cut the number of days in school calendars that are set aside for teachers’ in-service education. Instead these days could be used for teachers to grade the newly mandated tests. The proposed amendment includes the language “...rating activities shall constitute staff development relating to implementation of the new high learning standards and assessments...” And Dr. Ravitch is concerned about an idea like Ethnomathematics?...Come on.

Bill Collins, President, North American Study Group for Ethnomathematics

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