Friday, September 29, 2023

On the California math wars


Proposed mathematics guidelines in California, which would be non-binding because each school district is an independent governing authority, would de-emphasize calculus, reject the idea that some children are naturally gifted, and build a connection to social justice, The New York Times reports.

The draft guidelines were based in part on the “de-tracking” of students’ math abilities in place in the San Francisco Unified School District since 2014, which puts high-performing students in classes with low-performing students—placement policies under de-tracking are blind to ability. The state has thus developed math guidelines that suggest

  • generalized de-tracking in math placement with no special treatment for gifted or remedial students,
  • resisting the urge to put high-performing middle school students in accelerated math courses such as algebra, and
  • replacing advanced classes such as calculus with more common courses such as introductory statistics for high achievers.

The SFUSD’s data on advancement and retention is interesting and complicated by factors that may not have been properly considered.

“You’ll hear people say that it’s the least common denominator that discourages gifted kids from advancing,” the Times quotes Elizabeth Hull Barnes, the math supervisor for the district, as saying about the de-tracking idea. “And then it’s like, nope, our data refutes that.”

Others say that this kind of data analysis cherry-picks certain unique students without giving due consideration to the idea’s effect on the majority of students. They believe the guidelines are misguided.

Divya Chhabra, a middle school math teacher in Dublin, California, said in the Times that the state should focus more on the quality of instruction by finding or training more certified, experienced teachers. Without that, students with potential would quickly fall behind, and it would only hurt them further to take away options for advanced learning. “I feel so bad for these students,” she was quoted as saying. “We are cutting the legs of the students to make them equal to those who are not doing well in math.”


I’m by no means a political conservative, but my sentiments mirror those of Ms Chhabra. You cannot strengthen the weak by weakening the strong.

Look, when we choose students for the varsity team, we do so based on their ability. This gives them a better shot at a college scholarship while keeping less athletically gifted players safe on the junior varsity or freshman squads.

Some kids are really good at math, and a scheme like the California draft guidelines would take away opportunities from those students without adding any good teachers for the rest of the students.

Some of those other students struggle but can learn math, and they would benefit from beefed-up math instruction, not from its disposal. Other students aren’t ever going to get math, and we’re not going to improve their lives in any way by putting them in middle school classes with gifted students.

Besides, the solution doesn’t fit the problem. If you’ve read our About page, you know I used to work at the John D and Catherine T MacArthur Foundation in Chicago, where Adele Simmons served as the foundation’s president during part of my tenure. She once said in a board meeting, “Look, you’re not going to fix the schools by designing a new math curriculum,” referring to public schools in Chicago, in which she took a strong interest. That was 25 years ago, but it still applies today.

It is my belief that these draft guidelines are steered by test data. On standardized tests, it’s a good idea to write questions with contexts that are relevant to kids’ lives. It helps them relate and get distracted less by extraneous information in the problem unrelated to the subject we’re trying to test.

For example, we might write a math problem about a Black Lives Matter protest, as students in every school district in America are familiar with that context. Writing a problem about golf would likely be less accessible to city students who may get distracted wondering what golf is and fail to get on with the problem.

But what makes a good standardized test question doesn’t always make a good curriculum or classroom unit or exercise.

California needs to focus on good teaching, not on good testing. Some people may argue that this is a force of progressive political correctness; it is not. I have full faith in school leaders in California to do the right thing for the students in each local school system. We will not improve students’ math ability by changing the context of math instruction; we will improve it by changing the quality of the teachers who deliver that instruction to students in every school district in the state.

Why, for example, do schools in the state that serve mainly Black or Hispanic students offer fewer calculus or physics classes in high school than those with primarily White or Asian student bodies? Maybe fixing this would be a better place to start. Encourage Black or Hispanic students in math by giving them opportunities instead of taking opportunities away from White or Asian students.

Paul Katula
Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.


Comments are closed.

Recent Posts

Star Sportsmanship on a Wis. Cross-Country Track

Two cross-country runners displayed great sportsmanship at a Wis. meet as they stopped short of the finish line to help a competitor.

Old Chicago School Buildings Brace for Heat

Wildfires in Hawaii Kill at Least 93

Illinois Bans Book Bans