Menus Subscribe Search

Too Much Multiculturalism, Not Enough Math?

• February 26, 2008 • 11:20 PM

A pair of researchers claim teachers’ college curricula feature misplaced priorities they say helps explain the poor math skills of American students. Critics don’t give the researchers even partial credit.

Although the Cold War has ended, concerns — sparked first by the launch of Sputnik and now by the globalization of labor — about the math skills of U.S. students persist. Why can’t Johnny do long division? The answer frequently offered is that teachers can’t teach, as schools of education weather regular, if sometimes contradictory, attacks: Entry standards are too low or unreasonably high for prospective career-changers; there’s not enough focus on liberal arts and too much on fostering self-esteem.

Jay P. Greene and Catherine Shock, both of the University of Arkansas Department of Education Reform, say they have found another reason to fault teacher education programs: In “Adding Up to Failure,” published in the winter 2008 edition of City Journal, they argue that teacher education elevates multiculturalism over math and suggest that this perceived imbalance is at least one reason for American students’ poor performance in math compared to that of students in other countries. Their reception has been contentious, with peers questioning their methodology and calling their findings off-base.

What may be most novel about the Greene and Shock critique in City Journal — a publication of the Manhattan Institute, a think tank dedicated to increasing economic choice and individual responsibility — are the data they gathered to support their contention. Using as their study group the country’s top 50 schools of education (as determined by U.S. News & World Report, whose list draws regular criticism on methodological grounds), the researchers reviewed the schools’ course offerings, totting up the number of course titles and descriptions that contained words like multiculturalism, diversity, and inclusion. They then compared that total with the number of course titles using some variation of the word math and calculated a “multiculturalism-to-math ratio” to estimate the relative importance each school places on social goals versus academic skills.

Although Greene and Shock didn’t suggest an ideal ratio, they concluded that the proportion in most schools favors multiculturalism too heavily. “Our students,” they wrote, “probably have great appreciation already for students from other cultures — who’re cleaning their clocks in math skills, and will do so economically, too.”

They blame the purported imbalance on the commitment of ed school professors and accrediting bodies to multiculturalism, asserting that “prospective teachers haven’t cried out for more math courses because such courses tend to be harder … teachers know that their future employers—public school districts — don’t find an accent on multiculturalism troubling. Because public schools are assured of ever-increasing funding, regardless of how they do in math, they can indulge their enthusiasm for multiculturalism, and prospective teachers can, too.”

Well-respected education researchers — themselves critics of many aspects of schools of education — find fault with Greene and Shock’s approach to looking at the problem of what ails ed schools. Deborah Loewenberg Ball, dean of the University of Michigan School of Education, suggests that survey tools, such as detailed questionnaires of instructors, combined with classroom observation, are more effective in determining the content of a curriculum. Arthur Levine, president of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation and former president of Teachers College, Columbia University, describes the multiculturalism-to-math ratio more bluntly: “It’s a meaningless measure,” he told Miller-McCune.com. “It’s like comparing the ratio of floods in India to car accidents in Brooklyn.”

Even Greene admits the data don’t hold up to close scrutiny. In a January 16 interview with EdNews, a Web site devoted to education news and information, he said, “The multiculturalism-to-math ratio is not meant to be a rigorous piece of social science. It is a back-of-the-cocktail-napkin calculation that is meant as much to amuse as to inform. But like most good jokes, it is based on a kernel of truth.”

City Journal editor Brian C. Anderson declined to characterize the article as a joke, however, noting that “the absurdity of what [Greene and Shock were] describing was the point of the piece.” Acknowledging that the article “wasn’t comparable to some of [Greene’s] studies with charts,” Anderson explained to Miller-McCune.com that it was “just an editorial.”

It’s unclear whether Investor’s Business Daily — which picked up Greene and Shock’s piece for its January 8 op-ed page and touts its editorials as “rigorously researched” — realized it was publishing something akin to a happy-hour harangue. Investor’s Business Daily didn’t respond to e-mail and phone inquiries about the opinion piece.

Greene himself says attacks on the methodology he and Shock employed are misplaced.

“The point wasn’t whether this was a precisely valid instrument,” he told Miller-McCune.com. “It was meant to be thought-provoking.” Noting that some critics suggested that he and Shock should have examined the content only of required courses, Greene laughingly said, “Fine — do that too. I highly doubt it would make much of a difference. [The multiculturalism-to-math ratio] is capturing something that’s true.”

But even setting aside questions about methodology, there’s hardly a consensus about Greene and Shock’s conclusion that education schools spend too much time on multiculturalism and not enough on math. The University of Michigan’s Ball thinks it’s legitimate to ask whether schools of education sufficiently emphasize the teaching of core content. But she counters Greene and Shock’s thesis by noting that research has shown no increase in achievement for students (especially at the elementary level) whose teachers took a large number of math classes.

Noting huge demographic shifts in primary and secondary schools, Ball also insisted, “Sound pedagogy depends on preparing people to meet the needs of an unbelievably diverse population.” Rather than having issues of diversity addressed in separate classes, however, she believes there should be a greater effort to integrate issues of multiculturalism across the curriculum in the teaching of teachers.

Ball, who serves on the National Mathematics Advisory Panel, cites a number of reasons for what she calls American students’ “ridiculously poor” performance in math: the lack of a national curriculum, an emphasis on reading over math in elementary schools, the fact that Americans — even well-educated ones — don’t value math, and poor teacher preparation.

But she doesn’t believe teachers are ill-equipped to teach math because they take too many diversity classes. In fact, she said, teacher education programs “have done a miserable job preparing people to deal with diversity.”

Levine made a similar finding in a 2006 report he authored for the Education Schools Project, which found that only 28 percent of school principals in a national survey considered their teachers “very or moderately well prepared to meet the needs of students from diverse cultural backgrounds.” Levine is a frank critic of teacher education programs: His report labels U.S. teacher education “principally a mix of weak and mediocre programs” and calls for the closure of failing programs. “There are fundamental flaws in the way we’re teaching teachers,” he told Miller-McCune.com, but they have nothing to do with how many classes on diversity are in the curriculum.

Calling himself a pragmatist, Levine noted that multiculturalism has been a source of partisan contention and said Greene and Shock are “pushing an ideological agenda rather than trying to improve schools.” But Greene is emphatic that he was not skirmishing in the culture wars; unlike some who dismiss the validity of multiculturalism as a topic of instruction, he said, “I have no objection to this content.” He wanted to highlight what he sees as the imbalance in teacher education curricula, although he acknowledged, “I have no idea what the number [of diversity classes relative to math classes] should be.”

For her part, while she didn’t treat Greene and Shock’s article as a piece of research, Ball believes stimulating a discussion about problems in teacher education is worthwhile. What she finds tiring as an education professional, though, is that discussions of the issue tend to be flippant and to have “too little discipline.” Disciplined research, she says, includes the use of good data. Her pronouncement on Greene and Shock’s data: “completely unuseful.”

Amy R. Ramos
Amy R. Ramos began her career working in local government, where she became familiar with numerous public policy issues, including land use and indigent mental health services. She is now an editor and freelance writer. Ramos has a bachelor's degree in comparative literature from Brown University.

More From Amy R. Ramos

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

July 29 • 6:00 AM

What Are the Benefits of Locking Yourself in a Tank and Floating in Room-Temperature Saltwater?

After three sessions in an isolation tank, the answer’s still not quite clear.


July 29 • 4:00 AM

Harry Potter and the Battle Against Bigotry

Kids who identify with the hero of J.K. Rowling’s popular fantasy novels hold more open-minded attitudes toward immigrants and gays.


July 29 • 2:00 AM

Geographic Scale and Talent Migration: Washington, D.C.’s New Silver Line

Around the country, suburbs are fighting with the urban core over jobs and employees.


July 28 • 4:00 PM

Border Fences Make Unequal Neighbors and Enforce Social Inequality

What would it look like if you combined Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza, demographically speaking? What about the United States and Guatemala?


July 28 • 2:00 PM

Are Patient Privacy Laws Being Misused to Protect Medical Centers?

A 1996 law known as HIPAA has been cited to scold a mom taking a picture of her son in a hospital, to keep information away from police investigating a possible rape at a nursing home, and to threaten VA whistleblowers.


July 28 • 12:00 PM

Does Internet Addiction Excuse the Death of an Infant?

In Love Child, documentary filmmaker Valerie Veatch explores how virtual worlds encourage us to erase the boundary between digital and real, no matter the consequences.


July 28 • 11:11 AM

NASA Could Build Entire Spacecrafts in Space Using 3-D Printers

This year NASA will experiment with 3-D printing small objects in space. That could mark the beginning of a gravity-free manufacturing revolution.


July 28 • 10:00 AM

Hell Isn’t for Real

You may have seen pictures of the massive crater in Siberia. It unfortunately—or fortunately—does not lead to the netherworld.


July 28 • 8:00 AM

Why Isn’t Obama More Popular?

It takes a while for people to notice that things are going well, particularly when they’ve been bad for so long.


July 28 • 7:45 AM

The Most Popular Ways to Share Good and Bad Personal News

Researchers rank the popularity of all of the different methods we have for telling people about our lives, from Facebook to face-to-face.


July 28 • 6:00 AM

Hams Without Ends and Cats Tied to Trees: How We Create Traditions With Dubious Origins

Does it really matter if the reason for why you give money to newlyweds is based on a skewed version of a story your parents once told you?


July 28 • 4:00 AM

A Belief in ‘Oneness’ Is Equated With Pro-Environment Behavior

New research finds a link between concern for the environment and belief in the concept of universal interconnectedness.


July 25 • 4:00 PM

Flying Blind: The View From 30,000 Feet Puts Everything in Perspective

Next time you find yourself in an airplane, consider keeping your phone turned off and the window open.


July 25 • 2:00 PM

Trophy Scarves: Race, Gender, and the Woman-as-Prop Trope

Social inequality unapologetically laid bare.


July 25 • 1:51 PM

Confusing Population Change With Migration

A lot of population change is baked into a region from migration that happened decades ago.


July 25 • 1:37 PM

Do Not Tell Your Kids That Eating Vegetables Will Make Them Stronger

Instead, hand them over in silence. Or, market them as the most delicious snack known to mankind.



July 25 • 11:07 AM

The West’s Groundwater Is Being Sucked Dry

Scientists were stunned to discover just how much groundwater has been lost from beneath the Colorado River over the past 10 years.


July 25 • 10:00 AM

Shelf Help: New Book Reviews in 100 Words or Less

What you need to know about Bad Feminist, XL Love, and The Birth of Korean Cool.



July 25 • 8:00 AM

The Consequences of Curing Childhood Cancer

The majority of American children with cancer will be cured, but it may leave them unable to have children of their own. Should preserving fertility in cancer survivors be a research priority?


July 25 • 6:00 AM

Men Find Caring, Understanding Responses Sexy. Women, Not So Much

For women looking to attract a man, there are advantages to being a caring conversationalist. But new research finds it doesn’t work the other way around.


July 25 • 4:00 AM

Arizona’s Double-Talk on Execution and Torture

The state is certain that Joseph Wood’s death was totally constitutional. But they’re looking into it.


July 24 • 4:00 PM

Overweight Americans Have the Lowest Risk of Premature Death

Why do we use the term “normal weight” when talking about BMI? What’s presented as normal certainly isn’t the norm, and it may not even be what’s most healthy.


July 24 • 2:00 PM

California’s Lax Policing of the Fracking Industry Has Put the Drought-Stricken State in a Terrible Situation

The state’s drought has forced farmers to rely on groundwater, even as aquifers have been intentionally polluted due to exemptions for the oil industry.


Follow us


Subscribe Now

NASA Could Build Entire Spacecrafts in Space Using 3-D Printers

This year NASA will experiment with 3-D printing small objects in space. That could mark the beginning of a gravity-free manufacturing revolution.

The Most Popular Ways to Share Good and Bad Personal News

Researchers rank the popularity of all of the different methods we have for telling people about our lives, from Facebook to face-to-face.

Do Not Tell Your Kids That Eating Vegetables Will Make Them Stronger

Instead, hand them over in silence. Or, market them as the most delicious snack known to mankind.

The West’s Groundwater Is Being Sucked Dry

Scientists were stunned to discover just how much groundwater has been lost from beneath the Colorado River over the past 10 years.

How Wildlife Declines Are Leading to Slavery and Terrorism

As wildlife numbers dwindle, wildlife crimes are rising—and that's fueling a raft of heinous crimes committed against humans.

The Big One

One in two full-time American fast-food workers' families are enrolled in public assistance programs, at a cost of $7 billion per year. July/August 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.