PERSPECTIVES: A Case of Word Problems Turned Wrong

In education, when does something constitute a racist act?

A mother in Kannapolis, NC, complained on Facebook about her middle school child’s math assignment. It seems the teachers asked students “to compare the values [sic] of slaves with white people.” One of the questions was: “How many slaves would be needed to equal at least four white people?”

Nathan Davis, a resident, said: “It sounds to me like it was a blatant racist homework assignment.” The school system has directly apologized to the mother who posted her objection to the assignment, and then issued a written apology to “all who were rightfully offended.”

A few disclaimers are in order. I am a 73-year-old white male, a retired educator. I have not seen the Facebook post, read the math questions, or talked with anyone involved. But if the newspaper report I read this morning is accurate, then I am deeply troubled by many aspects of this latest educational event.

I wonder if the mother spoke with the teacher concerning the assignment to understand the reasons behind the assignment. Did she bother to explore if the teacher was doing some cross-discipline learning with perhaps a history class? I also wonder if the administrators did the same? Or did they react to a charge of racism?

I wonder why Mr. Davis called the assignment “blatant racist.” Did he do so because it asked a historically correct question concerning slavery and the Three-Fifths Compromise? Did he read the entire assignment and discuss it with the teacher for the same reasons the mother should have? Does he think it racist because it mentioned whites with slavery?

I wonder what background information concerning the assignment the school system gathered before the decision was made to discipline the teacher. Much of the issue deals with confidential personnel issues, but the school system has stated that “…we’re making sure the assignment does not count toward any student’s grade.” Well, if the assignment was so offensive, that seems to be a foregone conclusion.

But what if the teacher was reaching across disciplines and using a historical fact (the Three-Fifths Compromise) to teach math? What if the teacher required the students to solve word problems requiring them to use their knowledge of United States history and math? What if the teacher gave the assignment so the students could learn one of the awful lessons of slavery?

Our educational system is attacked for too much rote learning and teaching to the tests. However, when a teacher stretches learners to go out of the box of memorization, to use multiple discipline learning, then (quite often) the mean spirited and ill-informed come out.

Is the assignment “inappropriate” because it asked a question about slaves and whites? In my mind, it is not “inappropriate” or racist, but a good beginning for class discussion on solving difficult word problems, talking about our shared history (whether good or bad), and the “real-life” application of math.

Finally, I see “racist” used all-too-often as a hammer to beat down actions or words that are in opposition to a particular way of seeing or thinking. Now, if Mr. Davis and his ilk want the assignment to be “blatant racism,” let us substitute certain words for whites and slaves. But the assignment used the only words it should, white/slave, and that is not racism.

Lastly, I encourage any parent who has a question about their child’s schoolwork to see the teacher first to get a better understanding of the work. And if not satisfied, then, go to the administration for help. But going to Facebook stirs the issue, resolving little if anything.

Leave a Reply