Math Education Researchers Deserve Respect

In what has become sadly routine, right-wing news sites started publishing inflammatory articles about a professor whose work they don’t like about two weeks ago. (I am not linking to their stories in this post because they contribute to this scholar’s harassment.) In this case, it was a math education professor at UIUC, Rochelle Gutiérrez. Her faculty profile begins, “Dr Gutiérrez’ scholarship focuses on equity issues in mathematics education, paying particular attention to how race, class, and language affect teaching and learning.” She is being harassed because in a chapter of a book about math education, she wrote that mathematics teaching can reinforce white supremacy and that math has a level of unearned privilege in society, just like whiteness does.

I understand why some mathematicians have had negative reactions towards these statements. Is she calling us racist? We’re good people! We’re not racists. Math isn’t white. By saying that it is tangled up in whiteness, she’s showing us that she’s the Real Racist! One of my best mathematician friends is black…

If someone wandered into an algebra seminar and said everything in it was wrong because a group doesn’t have to have inverses because any collection of anything is a group, mathematicians wouldn’t take their criticism seriously. They would (kindly, I hope) explain that mathematicians use a particular technical definition for that word and that the person needed to learn a little more about the foundations of the subject before lobbing criticism at seminar speakers.

Most mathematicians do not have much training in education or social science research. We don’t always know the terminology, assumptions, or methods in those fields. It’s arrogant to assume we can swoop in and understand education researchers’ work better than the researchers themselves do, especially when our understanding is based on a few inflammatory news articles. Mathematicians absolutely should participate in discussions about math education research and practices, but we should do so with humility and a willingness to do some background research.

Instead of a knee-jerk reaction about Gutiérrez’ work, what if we (and by we I mostly mean mathematicians who are who are not from racial or ethnic groups underrepresented in math or who feel defensive about the idea of white privilege in math) started with the assumption that she has thought about and studied these questions for a long time and probably isn’t a quack? What if we started by assuming people who study math education know more about it than research mathematicians who don’t study math education, that they, like mathematicians, are experts in their fields? Once we do that, how can we learn more about Gutiérrez’ work and what can we do to help her and other scholars who become the targets of harassment campaigns?

I’m glad you asked! In the weeks since Dr. Gutiérrez became a target, many math and math education bloggers have blogged and tweeted (using the hashtag #IStandWithRochelle) about race and equity in math education, particularly Dr. Gutiérrez’ work. Here are some of the articles I have seen. I urge you to read them with an open mind and, even if you disagree with them in the end, try to contribute to the discussion about these issues without feeding into the harassment machine.

Get up to speed on #IStandWithRochelle with this post from the newly launched Equity Mathematics Education blog, which also shared this statement of support for Dr. Gutiérrez from Deborah Ball, math education researcher and president of the American Education Research Association. At the AMS inclusion/exclusion blog, Brian Katz also wrote about this incident in his post Complicit Function Theorem. (His post includes a link to an earlier i/e post about Gutiérrez’ work.)

Math teachers and math education professors who have been influenced by Dr. Gutiérrez’ work have written in support of her. Jennifer Dao worked with Dr. Gutiérrez starting as an undergraduate and writes, “This is the professor who embraces the beauty of mathematics, strives for equity in mathematics education, and recognizes the politics surrounding the teaching of mathematics.” Jose Vilson reminds us that math was never neutral. Matt Felton-Koestler defines some terms and writes a about math and white privilege in a post on his blog. Trevor Warburton writes that “Dr. Gutiérrez’s influence on my work is without equal” and describes some of his reflections about whiteness in math education and her generosity to him when he was starting his dissertation work in math education.

As I wrote at the top of this post, harassment campaigns like this are becoming more and more common. Inside Higher Ed published an article about how to support academics under attack two years ago, and it is still relevant.

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3 Responses to Math Education Researchers Deserve Respect

  1. Jonathan Goodman says:

    Yes, some researchers in math education deserve respect. Conservatives attacking Gutiérrez could have done more homework.

    However, mathematicians who were involved in the “math wars” curriculum debate (ongoing for decades now) have been frustrated by the low quality of research on math education and the eagerness of professional societies such as the NCTM (National Council of Teachers of Mathematics) to endorse it. Curriculum disasters like TERC ( are the result. This research did in fact include claims that certain teaching styles (particularly those involving structure and algorithms) are racist.

    This post by evelynjlamb argues that the statement seems offensive because we don’t have the right technical definitions of the terms being used. In that case evelynjlamb could have offered some definitions. The links in the post that I checked don’t lead to technical defense of the statements in question, only to character defenses like this one.

    Many mathematicians who opposed “reform” curricula being proposed by the math education community were disturbed that people put this debate in national political terms — labeling the reformers as liberal and opponents as conservative. I had to refuse to sign petitions because the organizers couldn’t resist putting in items about tax policy and local control (Republican positions on these) that are irrelevant to math ed issues.

  2. Viktor Blåsjö says:

    This is perhaps right as far as the Gutiérrez case goes, but in its general dismissal of critiques of mathematics education I think it is very problematic. The author’s call for humility is not consistent with her attitude that it is “arrogant” for outsiders to question “experts”, and her characterisation of such critiques as ignorant, “inflammatory” “knee-jerk reactions”. There are many legitimate critiques of mathematics education research, and dismissing them in this manner is not constructive. I have written further on this issue here:

    • evelynjlamb says:

      Thanks for your comment, Viktor. When I wrote, “Mathematicians absolutely should participate in discussions about math education research and practices, but we should do so with humility and a willingness to do some background research,” I meant that people from outside the field need to have some basic understanding of the field before making criticisms (something that seemed to be particularly lacking in this case), not that they can never criticize.
      I appreciate the food for thought in the response post you link.

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