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Here's what to know about the anti-racist math training at Pittsburgh Public Schools

A student takes a photo of the whiteboard in math class.
Kevin Wolf
A student takes a photo of the whiteboard in math class.

Pittsburgh Public Schools (PPS) recently made national headlines over a new anti-racist training opportunity for the district’s math teachers.

Conservative news outlets picked up the story last month after school board members voted to allocate $50,000 for the program, which aims to mitigate the impact of systemic racism in the classroom.

It’s the second training the district has contracted Quetzal Education Consulting to provide to its math teachers. The district first partnered with the California-based firm last year to “enhance the teaching and learning conditions” at SciTech, the district’s science and math magnet school, though math teachers at other schools were invited to attend.

PPS assistant superintendent Shawn McNeil was SciTech’s principal at the time. Now that he oversees professional development districtwide, McNeil said he wanted to extend the opportunity elsewhere.

“We have to consider how we are cultivating mathematical identity so that our Black and brown students see themselves as mathematicians,” McNeil said. “So when we enter the math classroom, what are we doing to, one, recognize and name mathematical strengths of our Black and brown students? And how do we help them and teach them to recognize their own strengths?”

Math teachers of all grades will be eligible to join the optional workshop series, which will take place over six virtual sessions from January to June.

McNeil said it will focus on how math teachers can ensure the most underserved students feel safe and valued in the classroom.

More than half of all students at PPS are Black, though a significant achievement gap between Black and white students has persisted for decades.

And that gap widened by 3.4% during the 2022-2023 school year, according to a district analysis of scores on state math exams for students in third through eighth grade.

Office of Data, Research, Evaluation and Assessment
Pittsburgh Public Schools

The disparity comes as students in the district work to recover learning lost during the pandemic. Math proficiency remains below pre-pandemic levels across students of all backgrounds, though state test scores reveal white students are recovering faster than their Black peers.

McNeil said closing that gap starts with intentionally thinking about how the district supports its students of color.

“We have to take action and be intentional as it relates to creating access and opportunity for our Black and brown students, and removing barriers to learning,” McNeil said.

As part of its training, Quetzal works with educators to “identify, disrupt, and replace ineffective and oppressive practices in math instruction with practices that center the wellness of students of Color,” according to information presented to the school board.

Seeing that participation in the training isn’t mandatory for math teachers, McNeil said districtwide change will come as teachers who have gone through it put the lessons learned into practice in their own classrooms.

“This work is not about trying to convince someone that they need to reflect and dig into this,” McNeil said. “I can't convince someone to do this type of work because this work is around beliefs and mindset.”

McNeil said the district will use its COVID relief funds to pay for the training.

PPS school board members voted 7-1 to approve the program, with the sole no vote coming from outgoing district 6 director Bill Gallagher.

Coverage of the program from Fox News and half a dozen other outlets centered on efforts to instruct teachers on white supremacy in math classes — though no messaging about that could be found on Quetzal’s website.

The Fox News piece excerpts commentary from a 2021 ‘Fox and Friends’ interview with York College professor Erec Smith criticizing a similar training program for teachers in Jefferson County, Ky.

Smith, a fellow at the conservative Cato Institute and a vocal critic of anti-racist pedagogy, said the training “caters to a victim narrative” and would hurt Black students.

But proponents of anti-racist math instruction say it’s more about teaching educators to be culturally responsive and help students make connections between math and their own lives.

Quetzal was one of two dozen education organizations that collaborated to create “A Pathway to Equitable Mathematics Instruction,” a toolkit that provides educators with exercises and methods for creating more equitable practices.

Jillian Forstadt is an education reporter at 90.5 WESA. Before moving to Pittsburgh, she covered affordable housing, homelessness and rural health care at WSKG Public Radio in Binghamton, New York. Her reporting has appeared on NPR’s Morning Edition.