Too Much Multiculturalism, Not Enough Math?

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.
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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 “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 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 “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, 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.”