Did Oregon Officials Say ‘Showing Work’ in Math Class Is White Supremacism?

We reached out to the Oregon Department of Education about a newsletter it sent to math teachers statewide.

  • Published 22 February 2021
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Claim

The Oregon Department of Education (ODE) told teachers that asking students to "show their work" in math class is a form of white supremacy.

Rating

What's True

In a newsletter to math teachers, ODE promoted an independent project that has materials on its website that read, "White supremacy culture shows up in math classrooms when ... students are required to 'show their work.'"

What's False

The ODE did not explicitly tell teachers that requiring students to "show their work" in math class was a form of white supremacy. Rather, the department told Snopes that expanding the ways in which teachers make students explain their question-answering process beyond the written word and numbers could help eliminate racial and language performance gaps.

Origin

In early 2021, Snopes became aware of online reports that alleged the Oregon Department of Education (ODE) said the practice of students documenting how they answer math problems perpetuated white supremacism.

Among web pages circulating the claim was a Feb. 15 article on conservative commentator Ben Shapiro’s media website, The Daily Wire. It read:

A mathematics guide sent out to Oregon schools tells educators that asking students to show their work in math class is a form of white supremacy. […]

Examples of classroom actions that allegedly perpetuate white supremacy include asking students to show their work, focusing on getting the right answer, tracking student success, and grading students.

A separate web page by Fox News titled, “Oregon promotes teacher program that seeks to undo ‘racism in mathematics’,” also made the assertion, while users of social media sites including Twitter and Reddit debated the accuracy of such reports, or circulated their allegations about the state department’s instructions to educators as fact.

We learned the rumor’s source was a Feb. 5 newsletter from ODE to math teachers across the state that included links to additional teaching resources. See the below-displayed screenshot of a portion of the public bulletin, of which Snopes confirmed the authenticity via ODE’s Director of Communications Mark Siegel.

In other words, a portion of the ODE-sponsored newsletter promoted a virtual learning seminar designed by an outside entity — Pathway to Equitable Math Instruction — that aimed to equip middle school math teachers with ideas to curb documented performance gaps between white and English-speaking students and all other students, according to the bulletin and our correspondence with Siegel.

The Oregon newsletter included links to the home page of the so-called “Pathway to Equitable Math Instruction” project (on which we elaborate below), as well as to register for the course. Siegel said in an email to Snopes:

“The materials contained in the [newsletter] are drawn from both internal and external sources and inclusion of external materials does not necessarily indicate Oregon Department of Education endorsement.”

More than 30 people from agencies across California and other states — such as San Diego State University, the Los Angeles County of Education and UnboundEd (a hub of training resources for teachers) — designed the ODE-advertised project “Pathway to Equitable Math Instruction,” according to an online pamphlet listing collaborators.

In addition to the online teaching classes featured in the ODE newsletter, the initiative’s website hosts several PDFs to which middle school teachers anywhere can refer if they are interested in working toward the project’s goal: dismantling racism in math classes. One such report, totaling 82 pages, stated more than halfway through:

In other words, a resource on the website for “Pathway to Equitable Math Instruction,” which ODE called a partner in the newsletter, indeed stated that “white supremacy culture shows up in math classrooms” when educators require students to show their work because the mandate does not necessarily help students process information. Instead, the PDF encouraged teachers to offer a variety of ways for students to demonstrate their question-answering process, including via verbal discussions or multimedia projects that don’t use written words or numbers.

We reached out to several of the project’s collaborators for their comment on the The Daily Wire and Fox News’ framing of the above-described advice for middle school math teachers, and we heard back from Joanne Rossi Becker, a math and statistics professor at San Jose State University.

Becker said while she did not author the report — she served as a reviewer of its materials — the recommendation aimed to encourage educators to allow students to explain their thinking in ways other  than writing, such as through conversations, graphs, or videos.

“Overall, the document is well done and has cogent recommendations for teachers and other educators to ameliorate implicit bias and racism,” Becker wrote in an email to Snopes.

To be clear, while the ODE newsletter promoted a course designed by the project to eliminate racial and language gaps in teaching, as well as a link to a homepage, it did not include a link to or mention the above-displayed PDF, specifically. Siegel told Snopes:

ODE did not directly instruct educators in terms of specific instructional practices, rather an optional resource was shared to support teacher conversations to examine their actions, beliefs, and values around teaching mathematics. The department is supportive of conversations in the larger context identifying beliefs and practices that perpetuate educational harm on Black, Latinx, and multilingual students, denying them full access to the world of mathematics. The authors of this resource described this larger idea using the term white supremacy.

The term ‘showing the work’ in this resource refers to a single approach identified by the teacher. Although a single answer may be expected, students could arrive at correct answers using a variety of approaches such as grouping physical objects (legos, blocks), diagrams of problems, writing it out, video explanations, and spreadsheets.

Put another way, the department said it supports the project’s goal to help students of color and multilingual students do better in math class, as well as its recommendation to allow classes a variety of ways to explain how they solve problems.

“Neither ODE nor the course has made claims that math content itself is racist,” Siegel wrote. “The system of mathematics education, including policy, graduation requirements, standards, instruction, course sequences, and assessments, must be evaluated through an equity stance to disrupt inequitable outcomes we currently experience.”

In sum, it’s true a project designed by dozens of school administrators and scholars said expanding options for math students to explain their processes for answering questions could help close racial and language gaps in teaching, addressing existing “white supremacy culture.” But it was false to frame that recommendation as a mandatory directive from ODE to teachers, or to suggest the department itself said the standard idea of “showing work” is a form of white supremacy. For those reasons, we rate this claim a “Mixture” of truth and misleading information.