Opinion
Mathematics Opinion

Are Math Textbooks Really Indoctrinating Kids?

No, but that doesn’t mean they don’t fall short in other ways
By Tiffini Pruitt-Britton & Candace Walkington — July 19, 2022 4 min read
Illustration of three diverse girls reading math books
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Florida’s state education agency rejected dozens of math textbooks this past spring because, officials contended, they contained common-core learning standards or violated a state law that prohibits references to critical race theory, among other concepts. The actions have struck fear in teachers and confusion among teacher leaders, textbook publishers, and education researchers and policymakers.

Gov. Ron DeSantis claimed that some of the textbooks contained “indoctrinating concepts,” and the education department took credit for stopping publishers’ attempts to indoctrinate students.

Are math textbooks really attempting to indoctrinate students?

We recently undertook a study of popular 8th grade math textbooks and concluded that not only do these textbooks not attempt to indoctrinate students in ways relating to critical race theory, they may fall short in teaching them. Overall, the texts lack the multicultural representations that are reflective of the reality of a diverse America.

In our research, we reviewed the math-story content of the 10 top-rated 8th grade mathematics texts in the United States (as ranked by EdReports, a nonprofit that evaluates instructional materials) to determine the attention given to diverse groups of students. The proportional reasoning and linear equations sections of the texts were examined as they embrace skills that are commonly used in real-world activity. In all, we examined 1,041 story problems.

We found no references to race or social justice let alone critical race theory, a framework for understanding how racism has been persistently embedded in policy. But our analysis did show a lack of substantial attention to differences linked to race, culture, gender norms, and sexual orientation in math-story content.

A majority of the pictures of people in the textbooks showed white, nondisabled individuals.

We found no references to race or social justice let alone critical race theory.

Many problems contained math stories on the same topics repeatedly (such as bike riding, carnivals, and hiking) that some may suppose are universal. Many of the real-world activities described in the problems required money or transportation to participate, sending a message about what is “normal” for families. Some of the math problems reflected a lifestyle with considerable wealth (for instance, a family vacation-home rental in the Poconos).

When cultural practices were mentioned in the problems, they were most often situated within regional American cultures—activities like barrel racing and BBQ festivals—which may be alienating or difficult to understand for students with other cultural backgrounds. References to practices that have long histories outside the United States (for example, an algebra problem about paints used during the Hindu festival Holi) were rare.

Also absent in these 1,041 word problems aimed at middle schoolers was any representation of nonbinary-gender characters; lesbian, gay, or bisexual family structures; or story lines dealing with social issues, such as the barriers that many children of color face in this country. Gender-role stereotypes and heteronormativity were reflected in some of the word problems (for example, a girl starting a babysitting business, a man taking his girlfriend out for dinner and paying the bill).

All this is a problem because research has shown that the context of math problems or the kinds of “stories” they tell matter for student achievement. Using familiar contexts such as activities students are interested in helps students think critically about what they are learning and determine ways to apply their learning to real-world contexts that they understand and value. Isn’t the point of teaching students mathematics for them to use it so they can improve their own lives and those of their communities? And isn’t it our responsibility as educators to invite and not alienate all our students, regardless of ethnicity, gender, family type, or home language?

Research by several scholars, including one of us (Walkington), demonstrates that students perform better and learn more when they get math story problems that are both related to their interests and understandable to read. If students don’t see a world they can connect with in their texts, the texts are less likely to be effective.

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A related problem well worth mentioning is the story problems’ level of English-language difficulty. If the textbooks are to serve students who are learning English, then authors have to pay attention to vocabulary and wording so the stories themselves are not barriers to math understanding. We didn’t find this to always be the case in the math problems we examined.

To make textbooks work better for all students, we suggest that the books be reviewed for cultural relevance, and this information should be made publicly available and a part of the textbook-adoption process. Textbook-ranking systems as well as state adoption boards should hold publishers accountable for making changes as society changes and gains understanding of the role culture plays in mathematics learning and instruction.

In addition, textbook and curriculum developers should take steps to make content more culturally diverse, such as employing writers from different backgrounds or creating a cultural advisory board.

Our study gave us multiple reasons to be concerned about the content of 8th grade math textbooks, but none of them had to do with indoctrination, as Florida’s Republican governor has charged. If textbooks are to serve all children, those who develop and approve textbooks must see that the texts depict worlds that are familiar and welcoming to children from a variety of backgrounds.

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