News & Politics

Study Claims Gifted Math Classes Promote 'Academic Apartheid'

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A math education professor is arguing that gifted math classes cause “academic apartheid” among students, claiming that the practice is rooted in “capitalist exploitations and settler colonialism.”

The study, “Understanding Issues Associated With Tracking Students in Mathematics Education,” was published in the new issue of the the Columbia University journal Mathematics Education by Cacey Wells, a professor at the University of Oklahoma.

In his article — which relies heavily upon social justice math theory — Wells takes aim at what teachers call “academic tracking,” which is the practice of placing students in different math classes (such as pre-algebra or gifted classes) depending on test scores.

Under the tracking system, for example, a student who scores in the top 10 percent of his peers may be placed into a precalculus course. On the other hand, a student who scores in the lowest 10 percent may be placed into a remedial math class, or perhaps pre-algebra.

While this practice is fairly common in high school, it has come under criticism by teachers who worry about the impact of the practice on the lower performing students. The confidence of some students may suffer at the expense of others, especially minorities, it is argued.

Not only that, but critics of the tracking system worry that standardized test scores may not fully encompass all of a students’ skills and abilities. This is especially true for students of color and children whose first language is not English, critics argue.

Math classes for students of different abilities  represent an “outgrowth of racial hierarchies that have developed over the nation’s history and that have privileged whiteness,” argued Wells.

“This is particularly true in schools. Many times students are pigeonholed into particular academic tracks based purely on socially constructed potentialities,” he added.

Drawing from this, Wells — who teaches aspiring math teachers at Columbia University — argues that separating students by ability is a form of “academic apartheid,” a logical consequence of what he calls “settler colonialism” in math education.

“Settler colonial ideas routinely become evident through colonization of intellect. When there is no longer territory to conquer or people to physically oppress, there exists opportunities to colonize knowledge,” writes Wells.

“Recognizing knowledge as a commodity benefits many that already experience privilege in society, while simultaneously marginalizing those who do not. The resulting oppressive structure is a form of academic apartheid,” he adds.

“Tracking students based on ability fuels academic apartheid in mathematics education, as tracking often includes reproduction of social class by creating modern systems of segregation,” he expounds, adding that tracking further fuels “settler colonial ideas.”

To fight this, Wells outlines a number of ways math teachers can resist. Schools can start by “de-tracking” their students, placing all students in the same math class regardless of difficulty. Schools could also do away with classes like “Algebra 2” and “Geometry,” and instead call them “Math 1” or “Math 2” to reduce the stigma experienced by students in the easier classes.

Math teachers could also “teach math for social justice,” he suggests.

As previously reported, the notion of teaching math for social justice first became en vogue when a different professor invoked the theory to argue that algebra and geometry give rise to “unearned privilege” among white students.

“Teaching mathematics for social justice requires teachers to be up-to-date on current issues facing their students’ communities,” says Wells. “For instance, mathematics courses in schools can be aligned to issues of gentrification, immigration, race, and other topics pertinent to local communities.”

Wells concludes by hoping for a future in which academic tracking is not necessary. Only by providing students “democratic choices” can teachers eschew  the shackles of mathematical tyranny, he says. He did not respond to an inquiry from PJ Media to elaborate on what this might look like in practice.

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @Toni_Airaksinen.