Editorial: Slavery and math problems don’t add up for third-graders

Esteban Diaz | Editorial Cartoonist
Esteban Diaz | Editorial Cartoonist


The following problems appeared on an Atlanta-area school’s homework assignment for third graders:

• Each tree had 56 oranges. If eight slaves pick them equally, then how much would each slave pick?

• If Frederick got two beatings per day, how many beatings did he get in one week?

• Susan B. Anthony was fined $100 for voting for president. She only had $25, how much more did she need to pay the fine?*

*Anthony was fined in 1872 but refused to pay it.

Consider the following word problem: “Each tree had 56 oranges. If eight slaves pick them equally, then how much would each slave pick?”

If your first thought was seven, then you missed the point.

At Beaver Ridge Elementary School in Norcorss, Ga., the third grade teachers decided to integrate social studies and math by basing word problems on history.

Much like SOPA, what is at issue here is the execution rather than the intention.

Instead of asking innocuous questions like: “If 81 people were going west on the Oregon Trail and nine people could fit in one wagon, how many wagons did they take?” the teachers chose to write two questions about slavery.

The first was about picking oranges. The second, “If Frederick got two beatings per day, how many beatings did he get in one week?” was even more upsetting to parents.

One father, Christopher Braxton, told local Georgia news station WSBTV “it kind of blew me away,” and “I was furious at the time.”

Terrance Barnet, also a father, said the message of the problems was inappropriate.

“I’m having to explain to my 8-year-old why slavery or slaves or beatings are in a math problem. That hurts,” Barnet said.

Both fathers complained to the principal, and a WSBTV reporter contacted school district officials for their response.

The district maintains that the teachers were trying to integrate curriculum, but that the questions were inappropriate and were not properly vetted before being distributed to students.

The local NAACP called for the firing of all teachers and staff involved in the incident. The district opened an investigation into the incident, which terminated in the resignation of one third grade math teacher, according to the Associated Press.

Parents were informed that the vice principal of the school collected all copies of the homework assignment to be shredded before it could be further circulated, but the damage was already done.

The math problems may not have been reviewed by the district, but they were seen by at least the four math teachers who distributed the questions in their classrooms.

While America must always remember its shameful history of slavery, the way to educate our children about a hateful and harmful past is not to carelessly incorporate elements of violence and degradation into objective homework questions.

District spokeswoman Sloan Roach suggested the problem with the math questions was the lack of context, but we must ask if it is ever appropriate to reference beatings on an 8-year-old’s take-home work.

Administrators insist the questions were in no way racist and were just a bad choice. This may be true, but choices like this lead to a culture of tension between black and white Americans that must not be passed on to younger generations.

What must always be remembered is that children are not small adults. They are impressionable and curious, and what teachers present in the classroom has a huge impact during these formative years.

Kudos to the parents who stood up for the innocence of their children and protested an act of carelessness. It is this involvement in education that can help move our country forward.