Manhattan Institute

Classrooms of the Absurd

New York’s public school system embraces social-justice education theories—even as the city’s successful charter schools show what really works.

The purveyors of higher-education theory have ginned up one more meritless rationalization for the subpar performance of traditional—read: heavily unionized—public schools in American cities. It’s called “math equity,” an emerging doctrine holding that schools can’t teach city kids to count without first exorcising racism—or, as the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics declares, without forcing teachers to “reflect on their own identity, positions, and beliefs in regards to racist and sorting-based mechanisms.” According to The College Fix, an education-reform blog, math equity “refers to the growing insistence among educators that teaching math in the classroom comes with some inherently biased methodology that must be addressed. Proponents of ‘math equity’ also stress the importance of social justice issues such as race, diversity and gender in math education.”

It’s complete nonsense, as is so much of the effluvia now leaking from America’s graduate schools of education, such as “implicit classroom bias”—the notion that white teachers can’t instruct black students without first having subconscious racism washed from their brains. In New York City, the hustle has taken deep root in public schools, where it seems inevitable that “math equity” will emerge soon. That social-justice pedagogy is fatuous is demonstrated by the enduring success of Gotham’s 216 charter schools, with their heavily minority student bodies, which have outperformed traditional public schools since the first one opened 20 years ago.

The reasons for charter schools’ success are many and varied, but their triumph vaporizes the principle underlying the implicit-bias and math-equity evasions—that white teachers aren’t equipped to teach minority kids without first adjusting their sensibilities. Meantime, New York City Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza pulls no punches on implicit bias—he calls it “white-supremacy culture”—and he’s peeled $23 million off the Department of Education’s budget to bring teachers up to speed on racial consciousness.

No significant difference in racial makeup exists between New York’s traditional public school faculty—62 percent white, 38 percent minority—and its charter school faculty—58 percent white, 42 percent minority. Charter schools outperform traditional public schools regularly enough to discredit the idea that unconscious biases among white teachers seriously impede learning among minority kids. Official manipulation of performance metrics, both in Albany and at the DoE, sometimes makes direct comparisons a challenge, but the results are demonstrable: charters do it better.

It’s unclear why Carranza insists that implicit bias is such an obstacle in district schools, when it is clearly not a problem in the city’s demographically indistinguishable charter schools. Repeated efforts over the last few weeks to get an answer to that question from the DoE yielded nothing. But it is clear that racialization is the only tool that Carranza brought to New York when Mayor Bill de Blasio hired him 15 months ago. Whether it was his insistence that desegregation be a priority in a school system with an 86 percent minority student population, his threatening attitude toward the city’s world-class selective high schools, his demotion of white DoE executives in favor of minority candidates, or his “implicit-bias” obsessions, it was evident from the start that Carranza did not come to New York to teach reading, writing, and arithmetic.

Reforming urban education means angering America’s politically powerful teachers’ unions, and nowhere is that truer than in New York City, where the United Federation of Teachers is the tail that wags the dog. Carranza is not about to challenge that arrangement—and even if he were, de Blasio and UFT president Michael Mulgrew wouldn’t let him. So the alternatives are racialized deflections, absurd educational theories, and intimidation. How much better it would be to accept the lessons being taught by charter schools and apply them to demographically similar traditional public schools. At least from the children’s perspective, that would make more sense than pretending that “implicit bias” and “math equity” have something to tell us about urban public education.

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