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Mike hopes to see the world turned upside down through local communities banding together for social change, especially churches which have recognized the radical calling to be good news to the poor, to set free the prisoners and oppressed, and to become the social embodiment of the reign of God on earth as it is in heaven. He lives with the blessed memory of his wife, in Durham, NC, and has three adult children living in three different states. He also shares his life with the Mt. Level Missionary Baptist Church in Durham, the faculty and students of Shaw University Divinity School in Raleigh, NC, and the faithful fans of Duke and Baylor Basketball in his neighborhood.

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Wednesday, October 05, 2016

Everly and Stand Your Ground

On the weekend in July near the date that marked three years since Everly died, I began writing this post.  It seemed a good time to return to an idea that started to germinate when I was writing a book review back in February.  Kelly Brown Douglas, in Stand Your Ground:  Black Bodies and the Justice of God, addresses many aspects of whiteness and its theopolitical underpinnings.  As I worked through her excellent presentation, certain parts of her argument drew me into thinking about Everly's work over a quarter century of leadership in transforming how mathematics is taught in public schools.  On that weekend, I started to write about ways that Douglas's theological work and Everly's work in math education are challenging the same kinds of problems.  Now, almost three months later as I celebrate her birthday, I'm going to finish it.

Everly's earliest efforts to influence the way that math is taught began soon after arriving in North Carolina, fresh out of her MS degree in math education from the University of Texas in Austin.  Administrators quickly recognized that as a classroom teacher, she had the potential both through example and leadership to reshape math teaching in a way that more students could have an opportunity to succeed in what is too often thought of as a subject matter for only an elite few.  However, as soon as she was elevated to a position of leadership, she began to meet resistance from the experienced teachers who were already sure that the way to teach math had to be pretty much the same way that they were taught math.  In other words, they, who had emerged as some of the few to succeed in math in a previous generation, seemed satisfied to continue the same pedagogy that rewards only a few.  They were among the few who are able to decipher a code of learning targeted at a narrow portion of the classroom.  It is not surprising to me that this first cadre of organized resistance was made up of an all-white group of teachers.

At the time, Everly and I were not particularly sensitized to the way that math functioned as a marker for racial difference in many education systems.  Even though we were in our mid-twenties, we had not previously lived and worked in places where we met and interacted with African Americans on a regular basis.  In the particular communities of Texas where we grew up, ethnic difference was more directly defined by Mexican American and Anglo American communities.  Having moved for the first time into the South, rather than the Southwest, we were only beginning to get direct experience of the racialized structures of education.  Her teaching both in Chapel Hill and in Durham played a role in reshaping her understanding of the role race plays in math education, especially as it became more clear who had access to higher math classes and who did not.

When Everly got the opportunity to become the coordinator for mathematics education in Durham Public Schools, she intensified her study of the way young people learn math.  That led her into conversations across the country about the gaps in mathematics achievement that show up between minority and majority communities.  She became engaged with leaders who were challenging the idea that some people by their genetic heritage will not be good at math.  She found many of the education leaders in Durham and elsewhere unwilling to have those conversations.  Some bosses told her to stop saying "achievement gap" in public meetings.

Before long she had successfully navigated the federal grants process and received a $5 million plus, four-year grant to revamp math teaching in Durham.  The focus of the program was to change curriculum and the culture of math teaching.  She set out to implement a new curriculum based on study of how math is taught in the countries where students achieve highest on international math tests.  Using a teacher-led, grassroots process, she led the Durham school teachers to select one of the reforming math curricula that the National Science Foundation funding was seeking further research on.

Implementing the curriculum would not be possible within the culture of traditional math teaching.  Everly implemented a district-wide professional development which took every elementary teacher and every middle- and high-school math teacher through about 100 contact hours of training.  The math curriculum schedule for professional development in Durham during those crucial years had over 250 times as many training events as any other teaching field.

The curriculum program was called RAMP:  Realizing Achievement in Mathematics Performance.  Influenced by civil rights leaders Robert Moses and Charles Cobb who through the Algebra Project were advancing the agenda of the Civil Rights Movement into reforming education, she insisted that every child have access to learning higher math.  With Lisa Delpit she championed teaching the same level of skills to all students.  She embraced Carol Malloy's research on the centrality of access to higher math as the barrier for black achievement.  This ruffled feathers in schools where principles and teachers had colluded to steer certain students, often by skin color, away from algebra classes to keep only an elite group of high achievers taking the high-stakes tests by which schools would be compared and graded.  Pushback came from parents who were not used to seeing poor or black children in certain math classes.  When those minority students were making good grades in math, the scuttlebutt assumption was that higher math courses were being "dumbed down."

Kelly Brown Douglas talks about the history and continuing legacy of Anglo-Saxon Exceptionalism, a version of white supremacy that identifies intelligence and political expertise as the heritage of a specific group of Northern Europeans.  Elsewhere and other times, similar ideas were expressed as Aryan mythology.  This particularly inherent giftedness of a people group justifies their management, supremacy, and control over the destinies of other groups.  Their Manifest Destiny, as Douglas also points out, demands that they extend their power and influence over greater areas, regardless of the wishes of others who may contest their claim to lands and goods.  As Douglas goes on to argue, the Black Lives Matter movement has risen up to challenge the heritage of these aspects of white supremacist ideology which still lead to systemic repression of minorities, even in a world of "racism without racists."

Everly strove to press this agenda against an entrenched belief that there is one good way to teach math that has been used successfully from eternity.  If only 10% of US students are excelling in math, then how can we believe that the way it is being taught is adequate?  Instead, a false belief in the supremacy of a particular genetic pool, children who really may not even need a teacher to help them understand math, has become a justification for not really trying to teach the rest of the students.

Could it be that children of various backgrounds might be trained to solve problems in different ways?  And could those strategies be effective if not immediately shut down by the canonical and only acceptable form of problem-solving being passed on by the elitist tradition of math teaching?  What if the order of courses (algebra 1, geometry, algebra 2) and the concepts and content of those courses were reorganized in a way that coordinates with brain development, cumulative learning processes, and the usefulness of the math processes for collateral science course learning?  Yet many teachers and successful math student parents assume that "since I learned math this way, it must be the right way to learn it."  Accepting the failure of most children seems far from good educational practice.  Trying to cure the problem by doing the same thing harder and with more testing just sounds dumb.  As Bob Moses has insisted, we need to give up the idea of a "math gene" that only a tiny minority has, and start trying to teach in ways that all students can learn.

Everly found the resistance to these changes daunting.  Some schools in Durham did all they could to "opt out" of change.  Some parent groups, unable to accept success of minority students, pressed to have the curriculum changes reversed.  Everly's doctoral research was showing that the change was real.  White students' achievement was going up.  Black students' achievement was going up even faster and the gap was closing significantly.  RAMP was good for all groups.  But social inertia can't always handle the truth.  People make up their minds based on deeply embedded prejudices that keep them from seeing the light that is breaking in.  Some high administrators decided that they would rather stop the complaints than try to understand and defend the progress.  Everly was "reassigned" within the school district to work on a project she philosophically opposed, a clear invitation to find another job.

She was quickly snatched up by the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, and she carried her research and agenda to address the statewide curriculum.  After several years of successful work for North Carolina, she went to the Texas Education Agency to lead a statewide curriculum reform there in the second largest state school system in the US.  She made many important steps there, including having a curriculum reform adopted by the State Board of Education.  It was her last professional action, and the final vote took place while she was in the hospital struggling through her first chemotherapy treatments.

Bodies don't mark off some for intellectual achievement and others for backbreaking labor.  Failure to innovate, to listen, to teach creatively and constructively are the central barriers to achievement in mathematics.  May Everly's tribe increase, and may her work continue to inspire and bear fruit for all children.

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