Woke Math? How Critical Race Theory Found Its Way Into Math Curriculum

Schools across the country have made considerable efforts to incorporate aspects of critical race theory into math curricula, often by modifying achievement standards and student expectations.

Once seen as immune from politicization, the indubitably rigid subject of mathematics has become the target of several endeavors to approach the topic through a racialized lens. The programs keep the basics of a right-and-wrong math answer, but they will change programs and testing protocols in order to achieve a less racially disparate outcome.

In June, Minneapolis Public Schools approved over $2 million worth of contracts for an elementary school math curriculum that would “contribute to an understanding of ethnic, racial and cultural diversity representative of the student demographics in MPS,” according to a report from the Washington Free Beacon.

A couple of months prior, the Florida Department of Education purged several dozen math textbooks from its list of approved books on the grounds that they contained substantial racial or social justice content. The department initially pulled 54 books from use for review before later approving several of them.

“Critical race theory is something that can be and is being applied to all subjects,” Jonathan Butcher, an education fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation, told the Washington Examiner. “You have this argument that math is meant to combat white supremacy as opposed to giving students the tools they need to succeed in school and in life. Math is a tool of racial warfare instead of something that is supposed to prepare students to be successful in the job market or as they go off to college.”

Butcher noted that in 2021, California adopted a series of changes to its math standards, and included in the changes was a section on “teaching for equity and engagement.” He says the stated goal of race-based math standards is to close the math achievement gap between racial groups.

“The best argument I think that those who advocate for critical race theory have is to say that students from low-income homes in urban areas are the ones who are most likely to struggle with math and science,” Butcher said. “But they argue that this is attributable to an oppressive structure in the United States or a set of laws and cultural mores that oppress people from minority ethnicities.”

So-called “equitable math” has received substantial funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. On the website equitablemath.org , which provides materials for educators, including one on Dismantling Racism in Mathematics Instruction, the Gates Foundation is prominently thanked for providing “generous financial support.”

The foundation does not list “equitable math” among its listed grant recipients, but it did provide a $500,000 donation “to support equitable math educational opportunities and outcomes” to the University of Texas at Austin’s Charles E. Dana Center in July 2021.

The website notes that “math problems … have correct answers,” but says the program is the “simple understanding that students and communities come from different backgrounds and may have different ways of being and thinking, even in math.”

Butcher said that the Gates-funded initiative and others are working to change how math is taught from “how numbers operate and work together” to claiming that math is an area in which the culture of the U.S. “harbors white supremacy” due to achievement gaps between white students and black students.

“Dismantling white supremacy” is a phrase that repeatedly appears in the materials for Dismantling Racism in Mathematics Instruction. The words “white supremacy” appear in the 83-page document 54 times.

The materials define white supremacy as the idea that “white people and the ideas, thoughts, beliefs, and actions of white people are superior to people of color and their ideas, thoughts, beliefs, and actions.”

“The framework for deconstructing racism in mathematics offers essential characteristics of antiracist math educators and critical approaches to dismantling white supremacy in math classrooms by making visible the toxic characteristics of white supremacy culture with respect to math,” the program says in its introduction.

By enacting critical race theory-informed standards, Butcher said, educators are replacing the more salient question of how to help students succeed in math with claims that the subject and the U.S. are “saturated in white supremacy.”

“It is absurd,” he said. “They changed the conversation from ‘how can we help kids from disadvantaged backgrounds succeed’ to ‘America has oppressive structures and math and science disparities are evidence of this.'”

Equitablemath.org claims that its program “does not suggest math itself is racist,” but “calls on educators to expand their approaches to teaching to welcome the cultural knowledge and experiences that students carry.”