maths white privilege

A level playing field, equity and access to education should be the foundation stones of state education. Yet as any class teacher will tell you, schools are measured on their ability to add value to all sorts of variated ability and ethnic groups. This implies that there are variations in the attainment of children from minority ethnic groups.

One American academic has recently drawn much criticism for the conclusions she has reached in a study of her experience of the American Maths classroom. But is such criticism deserved? Is there really a parallel between the subject of Mathematics and white privilege?

By the age of 11, just 32% of poor white British children will have reached the expected standard in reading, writing, and Maths.

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Maths in the American classroom

One academic based in the US, Rochelle Gutierrez, from the University of Illinois, has recently published work that suggests white privilege inherently exists within the teaching of maths and that in turn, teaching maths perpetuates this privilege.

Gutierrez argues that: “On many levels, mathematics itself operates as Whiteness. Who gets credit for doing and developing mathematics, who is capable in mathematics, and who is seen as part of the mathematical community is generally viewed as White.”

Maths has come to stand for intelligence and along with its buddy-subject, English has come to stand as a marker of a school’s place in the league tables. In reality, there are many different ways to judge a child’s ability.

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Gutierrez argues that Maths is used as a tool to assess intelligence, then this is a very easy way to make a child feel inferior given that some children struggle to understand the subject. She also argues that there is a rise in the amount of youngsters experiencing micro-aggressions based on race in the maths classroom.

Whilst it might be the case for Gutierrez’s experiences of American classroom, and there is a widely acknowledged achievement gap in American classrooms between African-American children and their white counterparts, does this theory stand up when we look at the British classroom?

Maths is used as a tool to assess intelligence, then this is a very easy way to make a child feel inferior given that some children struggle to understand the subject.

The British classroom

According to a recent government audit, amongst the poorest children in the UK, it is white British pupils who do the worst. By the age of 11, just 32% of poor white British children will have reached the expected standard in reading, writing, and Maths.

In fact, there are many local authorities in which black British primary children outperform their white British peers: Sunderland, Trafford, Kensington and Chelsea are just three such examples. There were also a number of local authorities in which the opposite is true.

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Overall however, national statistics reveal that while 54% of white British children meet the expected standard at the end of year 6, Black British children do slightly worse with 51% meeting the same standard. While this might be a worrying trend, it is worth noting that the same audit reveals that just 13% of children from a Romany background leave primary school having met expected standards.

In fact, there are many local authorities in which black British primary children outperform their white British peers…

Employment

However well children do in school, it has also been revealed that Black and Asian Muslim children are less likely to go into the traditional professions like Law and Medicine. In addition, according to the Social Mobility Commission, poor white boys are the least likely group to go to university with many choosing a trade instead of further academic study.

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The report also states that Black children are the most likely ethnic group to fail Maths GCSE and that Black boys face unrivalled rates of school exclusion and perform far worse than Black girls. Young black people also have the lowest outcomes in STEM subjects at A Level and are the least likely ethnic group to achieve well at university. It seems as children increase in age, attainment of Black youngsters in STEM subjects decreases and gender divides become apparent.

It is clear, in conclusion, that there is much to be done in bridging the attainment gap here in the UK as well as in the USA. Swift, effective action is needed from government agencies, educators, and employers to provide targeted support and engage with minority parents. It cannot be fair that achievement in 2018 in based on skin colour, postcode, or parental income.

All children deserve the best possible start in life.

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