Thursday, January 12, 2012

The New Math

The Gwinnett County School System, located just outside Atlanta, has made the news several times in the past twelve months for its unorthodox approach to cross-curriculum education. Like many districts, Gwinnett County is attempting to maximize instruction time by integrating lessons from one subject into the homework for another subject in the hopes of reinforcing the retention of both.

In March of 2011, a local third grader brought home a reading comprehension assignment titled “What is an Illegal Alien?” The worksheet chronicles the adventures of Sam and Taylor playing in Sam’s backyard until they are joined by another boy who “jumps the fence” without permission (presumably to monopolize unskilled labor in the area). After completing this tale of unsolicited entry, the students are asked to answer a series of questions to confirm their understanding. Number six was as follows:

 What does the U.S. do with illegal aliens?
A. The U.S. puts them to work in the army.
B. The U.S. shoots them into outer space.
C. The U.S. puts them to death.
D. The U.S. sends them back where they came from.

Original Illustration from Worksheet
I realize that education has evolved since I went through public school, but is immigration policy routinely taught to third graders? What would the correct answer even be? I went to edhelper’s site and found the original worksheet which even featured a faceless silhouette lurking behind a fence. Interestingly enough, the illegal alien lesson is recommended only for grades 7-9.

After several parental complaints, the teacher (herself Hispanic) revealed that she had acquired the worksheet from the educational website The Gwinnett School system referenced the teacher’s lack of experience (it was her first year) and a lax curriculum review board as the culprits and vowed to put the incident behind them.

On January 6th of this year, a local news station was contacted by several concerned parents about another homework assignment given to local third graders. Having learned not to rely on educational websites for politically-correct resources, one of the teachers decided to create a series of word problems herself by combining American history and mathematics. A sampling:

1.      "Each tree had 56 oranges. If eight slaves pick them equally, then how much would each slave pick?"
2.      “Frederick had 6 baskets filled with cotton. If each basket held 5 pounds, how many pounds did he have all together?”
3.      “If Frederick got two beatings per day, how many beatings did he get in one week? Two weeks?”

School system spokesperson Sloan Roach publicly admitted that “these questions were not appropriate” and they are currently looking into the situation. The local NAACP is calling for the teacher’s termination and parents have been urged to simply shred remaining copies of the assignment.

To the system’s credit, they used this incident as a learning experience and guaranteed that if their staff was going to assign offensive homework, it would originate in-house. Laziness could easily account for the “illegal alien” incident since the teacher in question didn’t even put forth the effort to locate racially-charged lessons for the correct age-group, but in this case a teacher actually took time to author the curriculum.

This begs the question, who is in charge of elementary curriculum in that system? It sounds like they have Howard Stern on quality control down there. Sure, something like this might slip through the cracks every once in a while, but this county is on the verge of turning offensive third-grade worksheets into a system-wide tradition.   

I can see the merit in combining history and math, but it is essential that the history is contextualized and age appropriate. Otherwise parents could find themselves discussing Rwandan ethnic-cleansing during a lesson on counting change.  

Given this Georgia school system’s propensity for turning potentially-offensive social issues into worksheets, I would like to offer some suggestions for future word problems:

1.      If two Klansmen place a 10-foot wooden cross into a 2-foot hole in someone’s front yard, how much of the cross remains above ground level?
2.       If Suzie’s pimp takes a 50% cut of her nightly earnings and she made $440 last night, how much did the pimp earn?
3.      If each Columbian coke mule can store ½ Kilo of uncut nose powder in their rectum, how many coke mules do you need to move 5 Kilos through US customs?
4.      If Cousin Roger is entitled to 25% of grandma’s estate upon her passing and she is currently worth $2 Million, how much does he stand to inherit by squeezing off her feeding tube?
5.       If neo-Nazi Dave can firebomb two synagogues per night, how many weeks will it take to burn down all 28 synagogues in town?

As for whether or not the teacher was being deliberately offensive and therefore deserves to be fired, I am reminded of a quote I once heard:

“Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity."

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