My Views on Assessments in Critical Pedagogy

Hi! It’s February – Black History Month and Black Lives Matter at School Week starts Monday, February 3. My district kicked off this month by placing me on administrative leave for calling out acts of racism! And, fyi, we’re still waiting for the apology we demanded last month…

I am taking this break to reflect on the why of my work and how I can do it in a sustainable way that protects my mental well-being as well as my economic well-being while also not giving up on the community I love.

As such, this month’s post is a paper written for my doctoral program on my philosophy of assessment. I may have something to write about for March’s installment pertaining to my current situation, but I feel like this is a strong piece and a required shift in how we view assessments.


There are two types of assessment used in education: formative and summative. A formative assessment is generally defined as assessing students’ needs and using data collected from these assessments to guide instruction. A summative assessment is generally defined as assessing the cumulative knowledge and/or skills gained from an activity, lesson, or unit. Formative assessments are seen more as informal, such as exit tickets or assessing group discussions, while summative assessments can be very formal, like end of year standardized tests (Frey & Fisher, 2011).

The Ethnic Studies Program in Seattle Public Schools aims to create an instructional model in which summative assessments are synonymous with evaluation, which Dr. Cullen defines as an analysis of a program (Laureate Education, 2017) and formative assessments drive curriculum and instruction. The Ethnic Studies Program uses a critical pedagogy model that views learning as cyclical and ongoing, therefor requiring all assessments be formative, even those conducted at the end of an activity, lesson, or unit (Freire, 1968). While the educator may not continue with students past a semester or school year, the students are expected to continue their learning beyond individual teachers’ classrooms, and assessments should be just as student-centered as instruction.

Assessment as a Driver of Instruction

The Ethnic Studies Program calls out culturally responsive teaching and critical pedagogy as key to instruction in addition to content that is explicitly anti-racist (Castro-Gill, et al, 2018). Both instructional models are categorized by Dr. Wilson (n.d.) as “Personalist” and “Social Interaction”, which closely align with the ways in which education scholars define learner-centered instruction and/or curriculum (Cullen, Harris, & Hill, 2012). In a learner-centered model, students are assessing themselves and their peers in nearly every interaction as they drive the learning. Teachers, in the role of facilitator, are eventually freed from direct instruction in a process Frey and Fisher (2011) call “gradual release of responsibility” wherein the goal is to instruct and model tasks and then observe and formatively assess independent and collaborative learning.

Richmond, et al (2019) argue that strong learner-centered curriculum starts with a strong learner-centered syllabus. As such, the Ethnic Studies Program aims to create curriculum and instruction that is backwards planned, starting with what students will be able to do and understand when they graduate from high school instead of what teachers plan to teach. To assist in this backwards planning, the Ethnic Studies Program has created a series of content-specific frameworks with guiding questions (Seattle Public Schools, n.d.). These questions are meant to help educators backwards plan, starting with what students need to know and be able to do which then informs formative assessment. Having a strong backwards plan creates an environment in which teachers know exactly what to assess students for, even in the simplest of interactions, such as academic discussions among students and their peers. Black and William (2010) argue this model, which focuses on the interactions happening inside the “black box”, or classroom, is key to raising standards and improving outcomes for students.

Field Observations

            An exemplar of the model described above is the sixth-grade ethnic studies world history classroom of Andrew Chase at Denny International Middle School. Andrew uses four guiding questions from the Ethnic Studies Framework that inform his curriculum and instruction for this year-long course (Seattle Public Schools, n.d.):

  1. How have power dynamics changed throughout history?
  2. What role do the natural environment and cultural geography play in the development of humans?
  3. How are systems of knowledge – science and technology – influencing power and oppression?
  4. How can we critically analyze the biases created by power dynamics and leverage this to change oppressive systems today?

He uses these questions to first develop end of unit assessments which inform the lessons, activities, and informal assessments students will engage in throughout the year. As described earlier, Andrew views each assessment as formative, including end of unit assessments, which are nearly all collaborative, small-group projects. Andrew’s syllabus uses student-centered, collaborative language like “we” and “us” that centers the expected experiences and outcomes of students rather than the content Andrew will deliver.

A typical class period starts out with what Andrew calls “Social Vision”. This is an entry task that activates prior knowledge and asks students to make inferences about a picture, graphic, video, and/or quote related to the day’s lesson. Students first engage in an “elbow partner” discussion responding to prompts provided by Andrew. They then have silent time to write down their thoughts about the prompts and the discussion with their peers. Andrew then asks for students to share out their inferences and come to some consensus on what the “Social Vision” means. This is a formative assessment that helps Andrew understand what direction the day’s lesson may need to take to fill in gaps of understanding.

Students then engage in some form of collaborative reading, like a jigsaw, or “data mining”. The latter may take the form of looking up information in an atlas, a textbook, or online source, but it is almost always collaborative. During collaborative work, students are assigned roles (scribe, researcher, reader, project manager, etc) and each student is assessing how well they and their peers are performing their roles. During this time, Andrew is checking in with groups to informally assess their understanding of the task and content.

End of unit assessments are almost always collaborative, and students assess each other on effort and collaboration using Common Core Standards for speaking and listening as a guide. Since Andrew uses the four guiding questions for a year-long course, the course is cyclical and thematic in nature, which allows Andrew to use end of unit tests as formative assessments because students are expected to apply themes to future units. For example, in a unit on the Agricultural Revolution, students learn about how human settlements negatively impacted river-valley ecosystems. Students will use this knowledge in the next unit on sustainability and climate injustice, particularly pollution in the Duwamish River in the South Park neighborhood of Seattle where many students at Denny International Middle School live.


Critical pedagogy asks that students become and remain life-long learners committed to critical analysis of their environment with the purpose of eliminating injustices. To prepare students to be critical and just citizens, an effective Ethnic Studies Program must view all assessment as formative. Summative assessments that are more evaluative in nature signal to students that learning is over. This is not a message the Ethnic Studies Program wants to send to young people. A critical, cyclical student-centered model of instruction creates an environment in which all assessments are formative and learning is never summed up.





Black, P. & William, D. (2010). Inside the black box: Raising standards through classroom assessment. Phi Delta Kappan, 92(1), 81-902. Retrieved from https://eds-a-ebscohost-

Castro-Gill, T., VanDerPloeg, L., Alonzo, A., Charlton, J., Au, W. & Guzmán, G. (2018). Seattle

Public Schools anti-racist content and practice definitions. Seattle Public Schools. Retrieved from

Cullen, R., Harris, M., Hill, R. R. (2012). The learner-centered curriculum; Design and

implementation. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Freire, P. (1968). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York, NY: Bloomsbury.

Frey, L. & Fisher, D. (2011). The formative assessment action plan: Practical steps to more

successful teaching and learning. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Laureate Education, Inc. (Executive Producer). (2017). Models of assessment [Video file].

Baltimore, MD: Author.

Richmond, A. S., Morgan, R. K., Slattery, J. M., Mitchell, N. G., & Cooper, A. G. (2019).

Project syllabus: An exploratory study of learner-centered syllabi. Teaching of Psychology, 46(1), 6-15. doi: 10.1177/0098628318816129.

Seattle Public Schools. (n.d.). Ethnic Studies Frameworks. Retrieved from

Wilson, L. O. (n.d.). The second principle: Models of teaching. Retrieved from

Open Letter to Denise Juneau, Superintendent of Seattle Public Schools

Wouldn’t it be nice if my blog could be focused more on the good work of the educators of Color dedicated to Ethnic Studies in Seattle Public Schools? I intended for this blog to be a tool for activism and information, but with as much gatekeeping and interference our program is up against, it seems this blog is more the former than the latter. I hope that one day, soon, we won’t have to fight so hard for the Ethnic Studies program and this blog can be more for information and sharing joy. In the meantime…

Superintendent Denise Juneau,

At a school board meeting on January 8th, 2020, there was a conversation about creating ethnic studies courses students could enroll in to earn graduation credits. At approximately 2:01:30 in this video of the board meeting you make a statement that includes the words, “I hope teachers on there [Ethnic Studies Advisory Group] will really take this seriously because the only people that will lose out if this does not happen are students. And so that’s my message to the ethnic studies advisory council: Please come together, look at these courses, decide whether they can be approved for ethnic studies for cross-credit because we really want our students to be able to have access next year.”

Superintendent Juneau, there are a few things the Ethnic Studies Advisory Group (please learn our name) would like you to know. We are in our third year of “coming together” as a group of dedicated educators of Color. We have “come together” despite threats from our principals, mistreatment, gatekeeping, and exploitation by administrators in Seattle Public Schools, and threats of physical violence from the community. We have “come together” to create the very foundation upon which today’s Ethnic Studies Program currently sits. We “come together” despite the fact you have refused to staff the program to make it sustainable. We “come together” despite the fact we frequently do not get paid for the volumes of work we have created. We “come together” because we are the adult versions of our current students; radicalized by our own experiences with institutional racism in education – both our personal education and as educators in Seattle Public Schools. We are so committed to this work, despite severe lack of support, that four educators from our group are on medical leave for stress induced by racism perpetuated by our employer.

We came together in November to begin the work of writing course descriptions you mentioned in your statement, only to have that work appropriated when the Ethnic Studies Program Manager, Tracy Castro-Gill, went on medical leave for stress induced by racism perpetuated by her employer. In December, we came together and met with Dr. DeBacker and Dr. Perkins, who informed us they had tasked a separate group of educators to complete the work we had begun; educators who have not been vetted to do such sensitive and important work. However, you chose to lay blame for incomplete work at the feet of the group of educators who have built the Ethnic Studies Program. Not only did you choose to make such an ignorant and offensive statement, you also implied that the Advisory Group is purposefully working against the effort to create course descriptions for cross-crediting.

We “come together” now to demand a public apology for the disrespectful statements made by you from the dais on January 8th, 2020. Educators of Color are watching and hoping that you will deliver on all the promises you are making.


The 21 members of the Ethnic Studies Advisory Group:

Alma Ramiro Alonzo, Montlake Elementary School

Akin Alston, Mathematician, Educator, and Entrepreneur

Kaitlin Kamalei Brandon, Leschi Elementary School

Tracy Castro-Gill, John Stanford Center for Educational Excellence

Andrea Chorney, Denny International Middle School

Flordelrio Correa, Interagency High School

Jennifer Dunn, Southlake High School

Donte Felder, Orca K8

Jon Greenberg, The Center School

Heather Griffin, Chief Sealth International High School

Tara Hofmann, John Stanford Center for Educational Excellence

Amanda Hubbard, Kimball Elementary School

Bruce Jackson, Aki Kurose Middle School

Savanna Jamerson, Interagency High School

Lisa Rice, Franklin High School

Rogelio Rigor, Interagency High School (retired)

Deven Shah, Broadview Thomson K8

Shraddha Shirude, Garfield High School

Justin Vinson, Franklin High School

Tess Williams, Cleveland High School

Elisa Yzaguirre, Denny International Middle School

Seattle Public Schools Does Not Like Educators of Color

EoC, We Have a Problem

Teaching is white. As a profession, the demographics for educators is 80% white. For Washington State, it’s 90%. Seattle Public Schools, however, has the most diverse teaching force at 75% white. Seattle Public Schools has also taken a very strict anti-racist stance since the new superintendent has taken over – at least in words.

One would believe that given these circumstances, educators of color would be at the forefront of this anti-racist movement in the district. We have the most concentrated numbers of educators of color. We are the only district in the state whose educator union has a program called The Center for Racial Equity, created and led by a Black womxn. We are one of the few districts in the state that has an official Ethnic Studies program. It looks like a great place to be for educators of color, right?


What we have in SPS are “leaders”, the vast majority of whom are white, talking about racial equity without having any idea what that actually means. They are claiming to work on goals like increasing the literacy rates of 3rd grade African American males, diversifying the workforce, and creating a culturally responsive workforce. In the most diverse district in the state one would assume those people leading these goals are people of color who have a great deal of understanding about what racial justice looks like. You’d be wrong. They are all white and they are leading these goals the white way.

What does the white way look like, you ask? You always ask such thoughtful questions. I appreciate that. Well, if you’re a person of color, I’m sure you know where I’m going. First, and always foremost, there’s tokenization. They put “taskforces” and “workgroups” together with a generous sprinkle of POC that perform various roles in the district. They may even bring in POC outside of the organization – you know… the token Black parent. Second, they elevate some POC to very visible roles that have little to nothing to do with the actual stated goals, which gives the illusion that a person of color is leading the work. That way, when someone calls them out on the lack of leadership of color, they can point to the one or two people that may have some vaguely related responsibility but no real positional power.

Last, and the most insidious and destructive, is the #BrownTax. The #BrownTax shows up in many ways. The most common I’ve seen is at the school building level where a Black or Brown educator becomes the disciplinarian who deals with “those kids” the (white) teachers can’t seem to “control”. Often times, principals will purposefully hire Black men for the role of instructional assistant for kids who are in special education programs for behavioral support: white teacher with the pay that comes with that title/Black disciplinarian in the form of an IA with the pay that (does not) come with that title.

Institutional #BrownTax

Right now I’m on a medical leave for stress along with at least three of my colleagues, all of whom are womxn of color who have been leading racial justice work for the past several years in the district. The #BrownTax taxes more than our pocketbooks. It taxes our physical, psychological, and emotional well-being. SPS leadership has created a perfect storm for the most severe #BrownTax that can exist on an institutional level. Here’s how it works.

  1. We say we are anti-racist.
  2. We don’t change any of the infrastructure or procedures that are racist.
  3. We put white people in charge of the goals ignoring the fact that educators of color have already been doing this work for years.
  4. The white people realize (if we’re lucky) they don’t know what they’re doing.
  5. They push the work, but not the title or the money, off on people of color, sometimes the same EoC that have already been doing the work.
  6. They don’t provide time, money, human power, or other resources needed to complete the work.
  7. They disregard the work and recommendations of the people of color they pushed the work off on and do the white thing anyway.

Let’s Look At a Case Study

I can speak most authoritatively on my own examples, which include the Ethnic Studies program. This program began in 2017 before our current superintendent was hired. I put together a group of educators, now called the Ethnic Studies Advisory Group, to assist in creating the program. Today, that group consists of 23 K-12 educators: 4 white educators, 4 Latinx educators, 5 Black educators, 4 Asian educators, 3 Filipinx educators, and 1 Asian Pacific Islander educator. As you can see, we are mostly educators of color, about 20% of us identify as queer, and 70% of us are womxn. This group has been leading in the creation of curriculum, professional development, and general decision making about the Ethnic Studies program since 2017. We meet once a month for an entire day, 7 months per year. That may seem like a lot, but when you consider we’re building a K-12 interdisciplinary program for the largest district in the state from scratch, that is nothing. Oh, and did I mention the Advisory Group doesn’t get paid? That’s important to know, too.

Despite the fact that students and community members show up to virtually every school board meeting demanding ethnic studies, and despite the fact that we claim we are anti-racist, and despite the fact that our work is helping to inform state-wide creation of ethnic studies curriculum, we are currently in a situation where I am the only person on the institutional level who works on this program full time. Again, it’s a K-12 interdisciplinary program, which means I am responsible for creating curricula for each content area at each grade level and training the 4000+ educators in the 100+ schools across the district on how to use those curricula.

Like I said, I’m on leave in large part because of this #BrownTax, but also because of #7 on the list above. I have been excluded from discussions and conversations by “leadership” about ethnic studies more times than I can remember. I have been micro – and macro – aggressed by the white people who are “leading” the district goals for racial equity. So, I’m on leave. When I left for leave I was in the middle of writing course descriptions for ethnic studies courses that could be cross-credited by high schoolers for graduation requirements. I first consulted the Advisory Group who gave me instructions on how to write the descriptions, but since we meet so infrequently and for such short amounts of time, it was on me to finish the descriptions. Unfortunately, I couldn’t hang that long, and when I left my supervisor asked me what should be done. I told her the Advisory Group would need to finish the course descriptions.

Guess what? Instead of going to the Advisory Group as a whole, they reached out to one of the 2 white men in the group for advice who promptly pointed out the racism and misogyny of that move and provided the names and contact info for the advisory group members. Were they contacted? Nope. Instead, the white man who is now “leading” this work went to the high school department heads, almost entirely white, and asked them to recruit teachers from their schools to write the course descriptions. We have no way of knowing if these people even know what ethnic studies is or if they have any understanding of racism. None of the department heads except for two have even had any ethnic studies professional development. Meanwhile, the Advisory Group, who literally wrote the program into existence and already started the course description writing effort, is completely ignored and dismissed.

What Now?

Honestly, I don’t know. That’s why I’m on leave. I have pushed and advocated, fought and provided evidence. I have loudly pointed out all the instances of systemic white supremacy. I have organized and accomplished with virtually no support. What now? That’s the question of the day.

Fortunately, we have many white accomplices in this fight for ethnic studies who are holding shit together right now while so many educators of color are entirely burnt out, but it shouldn’t be this way and it doesn’t have to be this way. We have so many dedicated and brilliant educators of color who are skilled and willing to lead the way. To truly be anti-racist SPS needs to value those of us who have been doing the work for years and stop trying to go around us so they can check a box on a piece of paper, but Seattle Public Schools does not like educators of color.

Philosophy of Curriculum

image source

This is a special PhD edition post! I was asked to write a “philosophy of curriculum” paper because my program is a doctorate of philosophy in education with a concentration on curriculum, instruction, assessment, and evaluation. Reading the history and evolution of curriculum and the roles war and economics have played in guiding it was sad; unsurprising, and still sad. My goal in earning this degree is to help normalize and legitimize rehumanizing education.


Curriculum is at the core of this Doctor of Education program, so having a strong personal philosophy about the definition and purpose of curriculum is key. It is also important to have a philosophy for how curriculum should be developed, implemented, and evaluated. Important questions to consider are: What is included in a curriculum that can be adequately differentiated to meet the needs of diverse learners and educators in a culturally responsive, critical way? How can all stakeholders work together to create intelligent accountability (Fullan, 2011) in curricula? What do evaluators need to look for to measure the efficacy of curricula?

What is Curriculum?

Franklin & Johnson (2008) indicate the historical definitions of curriculum have fluctuated over the years. Some definitions include instruction as integral to content, while some definitions limit curriculum strictly to content, specifically content broken down by discipline and usually in the form of textbooks. While the first definition of curriculum, written by Franklin Bobbitt, was based on industrial efficacy (Cullen, Harris, & Hill, 2012), modern curricularists are faced with postindustrial-era education needs.

Students and educators now have access to virtually infinite amounts of information, or what has traditionally been defined as “content”. The goal then becomes producing critically conscious consumers and manipulators of information (Laureate, 2017). The “what” to teach, therefore, is only important insofar as it provides relevant, real-world problems that students are then asked to critically engage with and apply their learning to real-world scenarios. Ideally, these scenarios will be racial and social justice oriented, encouraging students to be positive change makers as young people, not when they “grow up”. This curriculum philosophy most closely aligns with what is sometimes called critical theorists (Miller, 2011).

Who Creates Curriculum?

Levin (2008) outlines the various political pressures that continue to determine who is responsible for creating curriculum. Everyone from higher education faculty to school boards and parents believe they are expert curricularists and have a right to create, inform, and approve or reject proposed curricula. Levin (2008) discusses the phenomenon in which a person believes they have expertise by virtue of having been a student. Franklin & Johnson (2008) add the role that politics, specifically the Cold War, and economics have played in determining who writes curricula, including politicians and business leaders. This can currently be seen with the advent of the Common Core and other education reform led by Bill Gates and the Gates Foundation (Ho, 2018).

Though many reports indicate the failures (Ho, 2018) and inherent racism in contemporary education reform, which can be defined as high-stakes standards-based reform (Au, 2009; Kendi, 2016), we continue to look to politicians and business leaders to spearhead curriculum development. Professional educators continue to be at the margins of curriculum development. This is a serious deficit that needs to be corrected. Master educators become expert pedagogues only through practice, reflection, and personal and professional development. There is need for family, student, and community input, but only insomuch as there is meaningful collaboration with skilled, trained, professional pedagogues. Politicians and business leaders should never inform curriculum, as they tend to only have their own interests, and not the interests of children – or even the nation – in mind.

How Is Curriculum Evaluated?

Because of the political and economic influences on education, specifically curriculum, current curricula tend to be evaluated in terms of mastery of standards, including the Common Core and other state-specific standards (Levin, 2008). Common Core standards tend to focus on discreet skills, which necessitates a pedagogy that compartmentalizes learning, instead of synthesizing learning in critical thought and practice (Common Core, n.d.). These inequitable measurements are not improving the outcomes of students, particularly students of color (Barshay, 2019; Au, 2011; Kendi, 2016).

Perception data and portfolio assessments may lend themselves better to measuring the efficacy of curriculum. Student and family perception of how and what they are learning can indicate how well a curriculum is meeting the needs of the stakeholders education is meant to serve. Portfolio assessments, which ask students to “show what they know”, can encourage the critical synthesis within and among disciplines (Hopkins, 2017), a skill many education advocates claim they want students to leave school with, including business leaders (Peart, 2019), and they are a more rigorous way to measure curriculum efficacy.


Curriculum is the heart of teaching and learning, and in a postindustrial education setting, instruction is an essential element of an effective curriculum that prepares diverse learners to be responsible and critical consumers of knowledge. While community should play a role in creating curriculum, respect for the professional skill and knowledge cultivated over years of practice should place educators at the center of curriculum creation. The outcomes of curriculum are best evaluated by those using it to learn: students and their families. Ending high-stakes evaluation of curriculum, and by extension education, and putting human factors back into the assessment of curriculum will produce civic-minded students ready to tackle the problems of the 21st century and many generations to come.



Au, W. (2011). Unequal by Design; High stakes testing and the standardization of inequity. New York, NY: Routledge.

Barshay, J. (2019). Five years after Common Core, a mysterious spike in failure rate among NY high school students. Hechinger Report. Retrieved from

Common Core. (n.d.). Read the standards. Retrieved from

Cullen, R., Harris, M., & Hill, R. R. (2012). The learner-centered curriculum: Design and implementation. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Franklin, B. & Johnson, C. (2008). What the schools teach: a social history of the American curriculum since 1950. In F.M. Connelly, M. F. He & J. Phillion. The SAGE handbook of curriculum and instruction. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications Ltd. doi: 10.4135/9781412976572.n23

Fullan, M. (2011). Change leader; Learning to do what matters most. San Francisco, CA:Jossey-Bass.

Ho, S. (2018). AP analysis shows how Bill Gates influences education policy. AP News. Retrieved from

Hopkins, A. (2017). High schools turning to student portfolios to assess academic progress. EdSource. Retrieved from

Kendi, I. X. (2016). Stamped from the beginning; The definitive history of racist ideas in America. New York, NY: Nation Books.

Laureate Education, Inc. (Executive Producer). (2017). Curriculum and the forces that shape it [Video file]. Baltimore, MD: Author.

Levin, B. (2008). Curriculum policy and the politics of what should be learned in schools. In F. Connelly, M. F. He, & J. Phillion. The SAGE Handbook of Curriculum and Instruction. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications Ltd. doi: 10.4135/9781412976572.n1

Miller, D. L. (2011). Curriculum theory and practice: what’s your style? Phi Delta Kappan, (7), Retrieved from

Peart, N. (2019). The 12 most important skills you need to succeed at work. Forbes. Retrieved from

Math is Ethnic Studies

Featured image is of a mancala game table. Mancala is an ancient math game originating in Ethiopia.

Recently, the work of the Seattle Public Schools Ethnic Studies Advisory Board has come under fire by conservative talk show hosts and Seattle’s own preeminent racist blogger, Melissa Westbrook. Critics accuse us of “dumbing down math.” Sitting school board director, Rick Burke’s wife, Lihn-Co Nguyen, has even hopped on the ethnic studies bashing.



Let’s take a minute to understand why these attacks are baseless and racist, shall we?

STEM so White

The teachers being considered for the 2019 STEM teacher awards in Washington State are 100% white. That’s not by accident. Several studies indicate that math and science tend to be white dominated spaces and research has linked this fact to the ways in which STEM fields devalue Black and Brown identities. While there are disparate outcomes by race for all standardized tests, math scores for students of color consistently remain far lower than other tested subjects.

Study after study tell us that how young people of color view themselves as mathematicians is key to their success in math courses. This applies to all subjects. That’s why you’ll often hear history teachers say things like, “Let’s think like historians!” Students of music who consider themselves musicians probably do better than those who don’t. Even in science, students have fun when they put on the white lab coat and do experiments. In that case, they can literally see themselves as scientists. Why would it be different for math?

Math is “Objective”

Part of the reason people don’t think identity is important in math is because it’s seen as the most objective subject in school. Math is math. There’s one right answer. Math is the “universal language.” I’m not arguing with any of those statements, but math is most certainly NOT objective, especially when it’s operationalized. And guess what? Teaching math is operationalizing math. When teachers choose not to include how identities matter in math, they are teaching a biased, politicized form of math. When we give the impression (or overtly state) that math originates from European sources (even the word “mathematics” comes from a Greek word), we are stealing the rich mathematical histories of students of color from them and we are lying to white students.

When we teach math using pedagogy and instructional strategies that focus on individual learning and achievement, we are ignoring the ways in which most students of color learn – collaboratively and collectively. We use word problems that are completely disconnected from the lived experiences of students of color. We don’t teach them how math can inform and transform their lives and their communities. Black and Brown people are completely erased from math and math is irrelevant to their lives in our current math practices.

And while math may be a universal language, there are different ways to learn about, conceptualize, and solve equations that are based on culture. There’s an entire sub-field of study called ethnomathematics. Not only does ethnomathematics center math learning in cultural traditions and knowledge, it teaches us that math looks and operates differently in different cultures. Consider the Aztec base 20 system of math. Instead of doing calculations and writing out numbers in units of 10, or decimals, Aztecs (Nahuatl) used 20 as a base unit. If we teach students there are many ways to get to the “right answer,” not only will they learn their cultural roots as mathematicians, they will also understand number sense better because they will be able to define it from multiple perspectives, or approaches.

a visualization of the Aztec base 20 system

Oppression in Math

“Western” math – the base 10 system (which actually comes from ancient India)- is not the only math. The fact that so few people understand there are other ways of “doing” math means that math has been used to erase the histories of communities, people, and empires of color. That is oppression. The fact that kids of Latinx descent don’t know their ancestors invented zero is oppression. Causing people to believe that only people of European descent had anything important to say or teach about math is racism.

Science, and by extension math, have most certainly been used in more overt, nefarious forms of racism. Consider the Tuskegee Experiment, the story of Henrietta Lacks, and the debunked “science” of eugenics. Math was used to disenfranchise Black voters as late as the 1960s. Math is used in the War on Drugs in which the weight and type of drug is used in sentencing guidelines that disproportionately imprison Black and Brown offenders for longer sentences.

When Black and Brown students learn math through an ethnic studies pedagogy, it is an act of liberation. Undoing the colonization of math as a “Western” concept is resistance. Becoming a mathematician as a person of color is taking action against a system that heavily privileges white people, especially white men. Ethnic studies belongs in math just as much, if not more so, as it does in history.