Woke Math Doesn’t Add Up

February 20, 2021 Updated: February 20, 2021


Bridge 9340 opened in 1967 and was the U.S. state of Minnesota’s third-busiest bridge, carrying 140,000 vehicles daily.

Forty years later, the bridge collapsed during the evening rush hour without warning. Thirteen people died. An investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board determined that the collapse was the result of a math error made by the engineers who designed the bridge.

When it comes to designing bridges, there is little room for error. Every calculation must be correct. Make one mistake and the whole thing might fail, as happened with Bridge 9340.

Sadly, math is under assault by progressive educators who care more about being “woke” than being accurate. Earlier this year, the Oregon Department of Education sent an email to its teachers encouraging them to enrol in a virtual micro-course titled “A Pathway to Equitable Math Instruction.”

The course’s 82-page guide tells teachers that equating mistakes with “wrongness” and focusing on the right answer are practices that “perpetuate white supremacy culture.” Teachers should also not insist that students show their work, nor should teachers teach math sequentially in a linear fashion because these two practices also allegedly perpetuate white supremacy.

If this ideological perspective on math becomes the norm in school, we can expect a lot more bridges to collapse. Despite what some woke educators might think, getting the right answer, and getting it by following the correct procedures, still matters a great deal in math.

For astronauts, that right answer is the difference between landing successfully on the moon and crashing spectacularly on the lunar surface.

Accuracy is important—no matter your race, gender, religion, or sexual orientation. The best way to promote equity is ensure that everyone gets a solid education where they learn how to solve math problems properly and correctly.

Sadly, woke math is influential in Canada as well. For example, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives publishes and promotes a Toronto teacher’s “Math That Matters” workbook series. These lessons address controversial topics from a decidedly left-wing perspective. Students learn to promote the union movement, challenge the dominance of evil corporations, and blame industrialized countries for the world’s hunger problems.

It should come as little surprise that the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario presented the “Math That Matters” author with its 2020 Curriculum Development Award, in recognition of his work linking social justice with math instruction. Not only that, this teacher regularly runs workshops for teacher candidates in faculties of education on this topic. In other words, expect to see even more woke math in Canadian schools over the next few years.

This is unfortunate, particularly since students who graduate from high school today appear less ready for university-level math than ever before. That is certainly what Darja Barr, a math professor at the University of Manitoba, has found in her research. According to Barr, getting high marks in Grade 12 pre-calculus has little correlation with success in university calculus courses. She says that’s because high school math courses do not adequately prepare students for university-level math.

Other experts have come to the same conclusion. About a decade ago, math professors Anna Stokke and Robert Craigen (from the University of Winnipeg and University of Manitoba, respectively) co-founded WISE Math, a numeracy advocacy group. Stokke and Craigen believe that K–12 math teachers need to pay closer attention to the research on effective instruction in teaching math.

What the evidence shows is that for our students to gain a solid understanding of math, schools must place a much stronger emphasis on mastering basic skills by learning the standard algorithms for addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division. Math curriculum guides need to specifically require the learning of these algorithms, and textbooks must contain clear step-by-step instructions on their use.

In other words, if we want students to learn math properly, we need to drop the modern-day obsession with woke math. Passion for social justice is a fine sentiment, but students first need to gain a solid grasp of the fundamentals in all their subjects. There is nothing racist about saying that accuracy, speed, and precision are essential in math. Nor is there anything wrong with holding all students to the same standard.

Teachers who are passionate about social justice need to recognize that there is no better way to reduce the gap between rich and poor than ensuring that all students are immersed in a knowledge-rich and skills-focused learning environment throughout the school day.

Woke math doesn’t add up. Real math does. Let’s go with the real thing. Everyone who drives across a bridge will thank teachers for making the right choice.

Michael Zwaagstra is a public high school teacher, a senior fellow with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy, and author of A Sage on the Stage: Common Sense Reflections on Teaching and Learning.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.