The problem with uninformed and politically motivated public officials tinkering with public school mathematics textbooks.

Obviously, the governor of Florida (Ron DeSantis-R) does not have enough on his state leadership-management plate to occupy his time, so he has taken on the ill-suited role of state-wide “mathematics textbook evaluator”! 

The problem with his uninformed, not-pedagogically driven, cynical, and politically motivated actions are that the result will be to dumb down and make less effective Mathematics Education (ME) in the entire state, with a special harmful negative effect on those students who are not strong readers. 

Hitherto, the reason ME has escaped the fake and contrived “culture wars” (the way the “we’ll hold your coats while you’ll fight” news media lazily defines it) battle is because, unlike History and English Language Arts (ELA), the ME curriculum is highly characterized and driven by numerical, logical, quantifiable and immediately verifiable learning objectives; the only major “political” challenge that ME poses for those historical facts and language integrity deniers is them trying to “square” the word Algebra with the negative historical portrayal of the Arab and Muslim world. 

But there is an essential ELA component that is always connected to ME. And Mr. DeSantis did not need a psychometrician to explain that connection to him; any 3rd or 4th-grade teacher of mathematics working in Florida (had he asked) would suffice. And it is this ELA and ME connection and interaction that represent the major problem caused by his not-well-thought-out “textbook review” initiatives.

The end result of Mr. DeSantis et al. politicizing the teaching and learning of ME is that his efforts will weaken one of the most crucial efficacy components of ME textbooks —And that is, the teacher + textbook capabilities to help students to master the ELA aspects of ME classroom learning, and those same students being able to perform proficiently on external standardized assessments. 

For example, it’s the ELA components of ME that often “trip-up” those students who are Weak Reading Comprehenders (WRCs). It is these WRCs who struggle or fail with three fundamental linguistically-linked questions that must be read and interpreted correctly if a student is to successfully negotiate a mathematical word problem; they are:

(1) “What am I being asked to do?” (What is the correct process/answer this assessment is seeking?)

(2) “What are the correct operations or algorithms required to solve this problem; and in what correct order do I apply them to solve this particular problem or question?” (What kind, type or category of a “word problem” is this?)

(3) “Which ‘words’ or ‘phrases’ (and in what order) have been inserted into the question to distract me from the correct answer?” (Trying to assess if I really know the answer to the question, or am I just guessing.)

Helping students to connect culturally, practically, and linguistically to abstract mathematical concepts is an essential teaching tool utilized by all good mathematics teachers (see the film Stand and Deliver). But, this cultural-linguistic approach to teaching math is also necessary when developing students into being proficient and mastery level “standardized-test-takers” (a skill Mr. DeSantis used to get into Yale and Harvard).

An additional terrible by-product of Mr. DeSantis’s flawed drive-by textbook analysis program is that as students are conceptually and operationally weakened in elementary school mathematics learning, this ‘weakness’ will translate into greater numbers of those students not being adequately prepared to take on and master that tremendous STEM1-gatekeeper —Algebra! This will then result in many of these students not being able to later pursue a STEM college major and/or career after leaving high school.

There is a reason that we warn children not to play with any fire-related instrument or appliance; essentially, the issue is that they are not cognizant of the possibly dangerous or tragic outcomes related to their actions. Likewise, politicians should run for any office that interests them without ‘playing with’ the essential instruments (like textbooks) of public education. 

The critical components of public education should never be a careless throw-away strategy or a playing-politics-pawn in that politician’s political office keeping or higher office seeking plan; the result could be that many children can be permanently damaged educationally. And that’s because those aspiring politicians may not be cognizant of the destructive adverse pedagogical outcomes of their actions. We must let professional educators review and acquire the textbooks they determine that best support their professional work! Governors should manage states and leave entities like public education and Disneyland to those experts who have studied, trained, and practiced how to properly manage and have responsibility for the direct daily running of those institutions; and if you don’t know —Ask a professional somebody!

1. STEM: Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics.