Math: The Most Powerful Civics Lesson You’ve Never Had

A handful of educators are touting the benefits of using math to teach civics, and vice versa
By Stephen Sawchuk — November 26, 2019 10 min read
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Elections are all about numbers, sometimes hinging on miniscule percentage-point differences in turnouts. Math teacher Alison Strole’s middle school students know this better than your average American, because they’ve actually had to wrestle with the data.

Strole, who teaches in the Hamilton Southeastern district in Fishers, Ind., requires students to analyze 20 years of exit-poll results—including the 2008 and 2016 presidential elections, where swing states twice reshaped the national balance of political power. Officially, this is part of her math unit on data analysis and how to read and interpret two-way data tables, part of 7th and 8th grade algebra. In practice it’s also a powerful civics lesson.

As a concluding assignment, students must use the data they’ve analyzed to write a paper as if they were campaign strategists for the Republican or Democratic party: Which constituency would they target to win a particular contest?

It’s not always an easy activity to teach—most students haven’t quite grasped the concept of the electoral college before the lesson begins—but by now it’s so highly anticipated that every fall, students ask Strole when they get to do “the political party thing.”

“Some students have even noticed trends in the data,” Strole said, like the fact that college-educated men 20 years ago were voting very Republican and have more recently favored Democrats, while the pattern is reversed for men with less formal education. “They’re beginning to see that some of the party bases are changing a bit.”

The unusual lesson illustrates a potential missing piece in the national conversation about improving civics education: How math can be harnessed toward schools’ goal of readying youths for engaged citizenship.

Mathematics underpins the U.S. political system and civic institutions. That includes the legislative process, campaign finance, the filibuster, and the census. In the U.S. Constitution, the connection between math and civics is both a consistent subtext and sometimes disturbingly literal—as in the hateful “three-fifths compromise,” which for 80 years defined the value of enslaved people within the national system of electoral representation.

Beyond civics with a capital C, math can help students analyze different choices and possibilities, and therefore make better sense of their upcoming duties as voters and members of civil society. That goes for issues of national import, like health care, to smaller decisions made at school board meetings and by local government, and even down to everyday matters like how to produce the least waste when purchasing plastic water bottles.

“Students are going to run this world one day and make the rules and determine the policies that govern everything on this planet, and math is a prism for understanding that. It may be the most powerful prism,” said Karim Ani, the founder of the curriculum company Mathalicious, which develops math lessons for teachers that encourage such discussions. “If we don’t help students to see that, not only are we falling short of the possibilities of school, we are also being inauthentic to math.”

New Opportunities

In the same way that civics tends to conjure up mental portraits of George Washington wearing a powdered wig, math can feel awfully irrelevant to students. Sure, teachers have been told since forever that they should motivate students by using “real world” problems. But many purported examples out of textbooks—trains passing, dripping water tanks, divvying up Girl Scout cookies—can remain distressingly detached from anything consequential (or interesting).

Put the two subjects together thoughtfully, though, and they can be a powerful antidote to one of the things that’s ailed civic culture over the last 30 years. As a number of math and social science academics have noted since the mid-1990s, the explosion of online information of varying quality means that good citizenship now hinges on being able to analyze a tsunami of statistics, graphics, and numbers—both to test competing claims, and to advance new solutions and ideas in the civic sphere.

There are now a few different terms of art to describe this set of skills, two common ones being “quantitative civic literacy” or “social mathematics.”

Do you have a great idea for teaching students about civics? Share it with us and we might film you discussing your idea online.

One of the hottest debates in math education these days, in fact, has to do with whether statistics should be given pride of place in the secondary math sequence over the traditional course, calculus. That’s in part because so much public policy research on topics like health care, the environment, taxes, and civil rights is generated using methods derived from statistics, not calculus.

Surprisingly, the actual curricular implications of quantitative civic literacy for K-12 education have been comparatively understudied.

In a 2005 dissertation—one of only a handful of publications on the issue—James W. Mauch reviewed several states’ social studies expectations, two sets of national standards, and one popular American Government textbook to gauge how they addressed the concept.

While the resources implicitly endorsed the idea of social mathematics, they rarely specified how students could use math to make sense of civic arguments and processes. The assumption was that those tools were being covered in math courses.

“While the words ‘evaluate,’ ‘analyze,’ and ‘compare’ appear in many of the content standards,” Mauch wrote, “little discussion takes place concerning how students are to evaluate, analyze, and draw these comparisons.”

Possibilities and Pitfalls

Now, there appears to be a resurgence of interest in the idea that math could be the missing link in civics education—and vice versa—and that the connections between the two need to be a much more explicit focus of teaching.

“When we think about civics, we often think it’s the social studies teacher’s job,” said Mary Candace Raygoza, an assistant professor at St. Mary’s College of California and the author of a 2019 paper on the topic. “But if we think about what it means to do mathematics as something we need for understanding and revealing what’s going on in the world—especially with pressing issues of social concern—we have to think about it as the job of the math teacher, too.”

In Indiana, Alison Strole’s teaching illuminates what instilling quantitative literacy in students might look like at the classroom level.

Strole is no “math war” partisan: She does use explicit teaching methods when introducing new math skills and concepts, and she expects students to be fluent with math procedures. But she’s also committed to making sure that students can apply new mathematical knowledge in ways that feel authentic and relevant, rather than on contrived word problems.

Recently, for example, her school had just installed some solar panels. So Strole adapted a Mathalicious lesson that teaches algebra expressions within the topic of solar power. She asked students to do a cost analysis on the costs and benefits of sticking with electric versus purchasing or leasing solar panels—and even whether the school’s solar energy production was on track to help the city meet the United Nations’ goals for renewable energy by 2030.

Then they had to write a memo for the district’s energy manager and the mayor on what other steps Fishers would need to take to reach that goal.

And, in fact, the lesson did catch the attention of the mayor, who sent a representative to field students’ questions about solar power in the city. They had good questions prepared: Did a brand-new development in town feature solar power? Why not? Would solar power be an emphasis in future ones?

Best of all, Strole recounted, was how the city official confided he’d been doing the same kind of calculations as her students to weigh the financial costs and benefits of solar and wind power. That knowledge reinforced the idea that fluency in algebra is a skill that remains relevant, she said.

About the Citizen Z Project

U.S. public education is rooted in the belief by early American leaders that the most important knowledge to impart to young people is what it means to be a citizen. If America is experiencing a civic crisis, as many say it is, schools may well be failing at that job.

This article is part of an ongoing effort by Education Week to understand the role of education in preparing the next generation of citizens. Education Week’s civic education coverage this month is also being published in partnership with the Purple Project for Democracy, a nonpartisan initiative among hundreds of civic organizations and media outlets that have promised to share information on democracy and civics during the month of November.

See more about the Purple Project here.

Read more stories in the Citizen Z series here.

Across the country, of course, there are lots of challenges to ambitious teaching like this. Access to Mathalicious’s proprietary lessons costs money, and not all the core math curricula that districts purchase contain similar teaching supports.

Teacher knowledge can be a sticking point, too. At the secondary level, teachers generally earn a degree or certification in either math or social studies, and through no fault of their own lack the knowledge to unite the two disciplines well. (Strole is a bit of a unicorn in this sense. She’s licensed in social studies and math, and while at university, she insisted on getting student-teaching experience in both.)

There is also a legitimate concern, even among those sympathetic to the idea, that interdisciplinary lessons can muddle the teaching of both subjects if not done as thoughtfully as Strole’s. That’s what worries Seth Andrew, the founder of the Democracy Prep network of charter schools focused on civics preparation. (He now leads a nonprofit civic incubator.)

“I’d rather students have rigorous civics and rigorous math than trying to put a round peg in a square hole and be bad at both,” he said.

But schools, he suggested, can take some initial steps as they consider the idea. Democracy Prep, for example, began by simply including civics examples in word problems—for example, using 435, the number of representatives in the U.S. House, as the denominator in fractions questions.

By the time students reached the upper secondary grades, the tasks were more sophisticated. Every essay students submit has to include some sources of mathematical data and consider how that information backs up their argument, he noted.

‘Social Justice’ and Beyond

For those aiming for an ambitious approach, there’s another potential pitfall for reframing math as a civic problem-solving tool: It could easily get drawn into a longstanding culture war.

Since around 2000, a limited but dedicated number of teachers have explicitly focused on social inequalities in their math courses. Sometimes called social-justice math, the idea has long drawn howls of protest from conservatives.

Recently, for example, these critics targeted the Seattle district’s consideration of ethnomathematics, which aims to reconnect students with math’s roots in non-Western cultures.

Indeed, the boundaries between specific social justice themes and the broader notion of quantitative literacy for civics remain fluid, even contested. But Raygoza, of St. Mary’s College of California, believes that the importance of quantitative civic literacy shouldn’t be the responsibility of teachers who are already believers in, or practitioners of, social-justice math.

“We need to have these conversations with all math teachers. And we need to talk about our worldviews, ideologies, perspectives on what the roles and functions of schools are—because those shape how we think about what it means to use math to understand and change the world,” she said.

Lessons about touchy social topics can also be presented in a way that do not lead students by the leash to a predetermined conclusion, as some social-justice math exemplars have had a tendency to do. One of the Mathalicious lessons, for example, has students use systems of linear functions to explore how parking tickets tend to affect people with different incomes in vastly different ways. A key insight in the lesson is how hard it can be for those who can’t pay the initial ticket to dig out once late fees and interest start compounding.

The lesson is clearly inspired by the abusive municipal-fine structure in Ferguson, Mo., a precipitating factor in the riots and protests there in 2014. And teachers can explore that connection when teaching it. But the driving question at the lesson’s heart is fundamentally broader. It also prompts students to consider Finland, where parking fines aren’t flat but vary depending on a person’s income—and where wealthier people pay orders of magnitude more per ticket.

So students have to use the math to explore the broader civic question of cities’ need to raise revenue with two competing notions of what’s a “fair” way to set fines. That, of course, is a far more challenging exercise. And while math can illuminate the tradeoffs in the two options, it does not point to easy answers.

Strole keeps that in mind when her students are using their math skills to make arguments about policies, too. In the solar-energy lesson, some students disagreed with the goal of the 2030 plan, and she was OK with that.

“This is their life; it’s going to affect theirs more than mine,” she said. “I don’t think it’s my job to tell them how to think or feel.”

But there’s one thing she insists on, and it’s that her students use math when drawing conclusions about the civic problem at hand.

“We live in a bubble on social media with people with like-minded opinions. I want them to open it up and see both sides to arguments, and be able to support theirs with more than an opinion,” she said. “And in my classroom, the support is the math.”

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A version of this article appeared in the December 11, 2019 edition of Education Week as Math: The Most Potent Civics Lesson You Never Had


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