Published January 13, 2015
In some public schools math teachers do more than teach algebra and geometry — they give their students lessons intended to purge what they consider racism.
The "anti-racist education" program in place at Newton Public Schools in Newton, Mass., a wealthy, liberal niche of the Bay State, has angered some parents who believe the school district is more concerned about political correctness than teaching math skills.
According to benchmarks for middle school education, the top objective for the district's math teachers is to teach "respect for human differences." The objective is for students to "live out the system-wide core value of 'respect for human differences' by demonstrating anti-racist/anti-bias behaviors."
Priority No. 2 is where the basics come in, which is "problem solving and representation — students will build new mathematical knowledge as they use a variety of techniques to investigate and represent solutions to problems."
The benchmarks, which could not be found on the district's Web site, were faxed to FOXNews.com by Tom Mountain, a columnist for The Newton Tab who has followed the district's education system and, specifically, the rise of the "antiracist" education agenda there. His Jan. 12 column on the topic received so much attention, he said, his e-mail inbox was flooded with over 200 responses.
"I was surprised that this issue resonated so much with the general public," Mountain said in an interview of what he called "PC nonsense" going on at Newton. "It would be silly and innocuous if it didn't have an effect on the school's standing, but it has."
Newton Superintendent Jeffrey Young did not return several phone calls from FOXNews.com seeking comment. FOXNews.com also wanted to obtain copies of the benchmarks directly from the school but could not because school officials refused to return phone calls.
On the district's Web site where the math benchmarks for grades K-8 are mentioned, the Web page says: currently in process of curriculum review."
'Anti-Racist' = 'Anti-American?'
Some parents say their students not only are in desperate need of math help but that some students also don't know the basics of U.S. history and that antiracist policies are getting in the way of teaching the basics.
"The 'antiracist' and, actually, 'anti-American' curriculum permeates the school environment," Lillian Benson, whose children, ages 8 and 11, attend the district's schools, told FOXnews.com in an e-mail.
"My children do not know Christopher Columbus, except that he was a racist who caused the death of many innocents or the founders of the nation. They have hardly heard of George Washington or Abraham Lincoln even though we live in the area that began it all. What they do know about is the wonders of Ghana, Mexico and China," she said.
Another parent, Julie Agarkov says it's ridiculous that people living in the community pay top dollar so their kids can attend good public schools, yet she still pays to send her son to the Boston area's Russian School of Mathematics "to ensure that he gets a good math education."
The Russian School of Mathematics is a private, after-school math institution for kids grades K-12. Iness Rifkin, founder of the school, told FOXNews.com that of the 700 kids now enrolled in her school, 400 of them are from the Newton district; 120 of them are middle schoolers. She began the school out of her home seven years ago with her two children and a few of their friends.
"Now, seven years later, I have 700 students, mainly from Newton public schools … I can't even accommodate all the people who want to be in the school this year," Rifkin said.
Rifkin said she approached Young to offer to either teach Newton teachers how to better teach math or to have the district give kids a choice to either attend Math at Newton or at her school at no extra charge to the district; parents already are paying to send their kids to her school. This way, kids wouldn't have to take math at two different places.
"He didn't want to listen to that," she said. "Parents tell me they feel sorry for their kids to spend double time — time in public school and time in my school."
The district's benchmarks reflect the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics' (NCTM) Principles and Standards for School Mathematics from 2000, as well as "Newton's commitment to active anti-racist education," according to the district's "rationale" for its math teaching.
NCTM President Cathy Seeley told FOXNews.com that her group, however, doesn't specifically address "anti-racism."
"One of our principles is equity and making sure all students have access to math. There's certainly no direct comments in regards to anti-racism," Seeley said. "We don't have a formal position on that ['anti-racist' education] but I think it's hard to argue with that basic concept."
The challenge that schools face now is how to do that in a way that addresses all the content areas with integrity and still maintains a basic respect for kids of all races and ethnic backgrounds, Seeley added.
'Few Students Are Too Dumb to Learn'
Encouraging "anti-racist" education in schools is part and parcel with what's called "multicultural education," a movement that's been afoot for years as some educators try to infuse more of a varied cultural insight into the classroom. This thinking is evident in many of Newton's schools.
The principal's page for Memorial Spaulding Elementary School, for example, reads: "We know that the context for optimal learning is a school which has a passion for children and for democracy, an intolerance for racism and for prejudice, a commitment to the creation of an anti-racist, prejudice-free learning environment, and a genuine desire to turn the concept of 'just society' into reality. We hope to be that school."
But some educators say some schools are taking the idea too far.
"How many more years of declining scores will it take for the school committee and state officials to put a stop to this educational malpractice on schoolchildren?" asked Peter Murphy, a New York education consultant. "Values education should be done without gutting the state’s math standards."
Academic advocates of multicultural education say anti-racist education and multicultural education are very close in definition and say many people don't have a good idea of exactly what racism is, so they don't understand efforts to combat it in the classroom.
"I think of [multicultural education] as a set of practices that confront the various forms of racism and institutionalized racisms that do exist in schools, as well as the larger society, and thinking of ways of breaking down and deconstructing forms of racism," Christine Sleeter, professor emeritus at California State University at Monterey Bay and co-editor of "Multicultural Education, Critical Pedagogy, and the Politics of Difference," said. "I think that a whole lot of people are fumbling around with, 'what are the issues?'"
But in classes like math?
"One of the ways I would apply anti-racist education to math is to ask, 'why is it that, generally speaking, white kids get better access to upper-level math learning than low-income kids and kids of color?'" Sleeter said. "[And] in what ways might math and science serve as tools for understanding and dealing with various social issues?"
The National Association of Multicultural Education did not return phone calls for this story.
Joanne Jacobs, a former San Jose Mercury News columnist who currently writes about education and other issues at JoanneJacobs.com, said pushing an "anti-racist" math agenda all the time in class perpetrates the idea that kids of different colors can't learn the same way and actually works to widen the racial divide.
"I think if you racialize kids all throughout their education, all they think about is, 'has a black person done that before?'" Jacobs said. "If we would simply say, 'these are subjects that other human beings have found learnable, you're a human being, you can learn it, and try to deracialize the way we teach, it can work … very few students are too dumb to learn."
At the very least, Jacobs and others said, push the political-correctness in a separate, or more relevant class, but not math.
"I personally think it would be far healthier for kids, if you want to talk about culture, talk about it in Social Studies but don't talk about it in every single class," Jacobs said. "It's a waste of their time in math and science, and I think it's fundamentally wrong."