The Local Math Wars Begin *Again*

3/27/2021 – A discussion began yesterday about a San Mateo-Foster City School District (SMFCSD) school Board effort “to get rid of the GATE program and all advanced math.” Nextdoor users who can access Baywood Park neighborhood posts can access the discussion entitled “The death of the San Mateo foster city school district” at https://nextdoor.com/p/Wtf3qFd5-J3w?utm_source=share&extras=Nzg3MzE3MQ%3D%3D

(Note – if this link does not work for you, please try cutting and pasting it into a new browser window. For some unknown reason WordPress is having a problem connecting to this link.).

I wrote the following response which I will quote here. Please read through to the end because the link to the slides has been made available and there is some controversy as to what was actually portrayed at the extremely long meeting. Stephen Floor on Nextdoor quoted the following from the meeting: “I want to make sure nobody walks away this evening with the idea that the district is proposing to get rid of compacted math. We understand the very important reasons that student want to accelerate in mathematics and the concern about getting to advanced math. We’re proposing to the board that due to the pandemic and related circumstances we really need to move to a heterogeneous math course and then engage with our stakeholders with what that would mean going forward for rising sixth graders in subsequent years.”

Unfortunately this comment was supposedly made at 5 hours and 28 minutes into the meeting…

Despite this comment immediately above, the concerns that I stated below remain relevant regarding reform efforts in mathematics education. There are several “progressive” influences that are currently impacting the California math curriculum.


I have been lobbying against efforts like these for years on my blog at www.eduissues.com. I call your attention to the following article

https://eduissues.com/2018/01/29/never-believe-educational-experts-or-me/

Jo Boaler is a Stanford professor of education whose work is highly influential in California. She is a strong influence on and is part of the group who is *** currently rewriting the CA Dept. of Education Math Framework *** so expect to see much more efforts like the above as time goes on if parents don’t get organized.

Parents can comment on the CA Math Framework revision through this link (or through the link on the CA Math Framework page entitled “Mathematics Framework Online Survey” if they obsolete the link), but note that the first page of the survey makes it look like you have to be an educator to comment. This is NOT the case. Just fill in your personal info in the required fields and then click Next to move on to the second page.

*** Comments are only being received through April 8th. ***

Note that Boaler’s research work is not without its critics. This is a hot topic so I will present Boaler’s case first followed by Milgram’s and Bishop’s replies. Both sides appear to have legitimate gripes, so your “homework assignment” is to read both carefully if you want to be informed.

https://web.stanford.edu/~joboaler/

https://www.nonpartisaneducation.org/Review/Essays/v8n5.htm

https://www.nonpartisaneducation.org/Review/Essays/v8n4.pdf

As I mention in my blog article cited above “Never Believe Educational Experts – (Or Me)!”, California has a long history of educational experimentation fostered by places like the Stanford School of Education which one would think is a prestigious organization.

In Silicon Valley we like to think that bold new ideas are great. I am a scientist by training who went back to teaching late in the game after a long career in science, scientific software, and biotech. I was in on the ground floor of the Human Genome Project and managed the national gene sequence database (GenBank) for the NIH in the early 90s. I have always been open to new ideas.

Unfortunately education research has many problems as I describe in my blog article above, and the sorry history of failed educational experiments in California that have resulted in damage to children is lengthy.

I wrote my blog to try to warn younger parents of these problems so that each generation does not keep repeating the same mistakes. I hope that you will find this information useful.

*** I want to be very clear though, that the inequities that the reformers on the school board are trying to address are very real and require action too. Please be respectful of this fact. We need to act in a way such that we raise the general level of our society; not just fight for our own children. ***

My concern remains though that we can hopefully achieve that goal without injuring our most talented students.

My experience working with local high school students is that better students who are put in mixed math classes are bored and feel held back. This is largely because our society has become so divided by income levels that there is a chasm in education levels among students of the same age.

At the same time, the opposite happens for students who are put into accelerated classes that are beyond their capabilities as the blurb cited at the top of this conversation indicates. I have addressed this problem at length in other articles on my blog.

Please get organized and speak up TOGETHER now, but PLEASE also heed my other concerns mentioned immediately above.

In general I favor evolutionary change in educational practice. Abrupt changes affect too many kids and can not be undone. Kids should NOT be guinea pigs in educational experiments done to enhance the publication records of academics.

I’ve been told that Jo Boaler, originally from England, likes to end some of her writings with the phrase, “Viva la Revolution.” referring to shaking things up in math education. Proceed with caution…


This is a later comment that I made on Nextdoor.  Note that the slides for the meeting are available here: 7_2_MiddleSchoolMathProgramUpdate032521_0.

I skimmed through the slide deck (43 slides !!!). I am not surprised that this meeting went on till late at night. Slides 11-29 appear to be a “lesson” in Common Core Math, for example, probably intended to illustrate its “richness.”

This is another example of the problem that I often see at school board meetings. Administrators make up massive slide decks that people can not take in at a single sitting and then proceed to lose their audience. As a result, all kinds of misperceptions can occur. This is not my idea of good teaching technique.

I agree with Stephen Floor above that the slides do appear to show that there is still a path to Calculus in High School, but, not having heard the actual discussion, I do not know how much this was emphasized during the meeting. I have often seen slides skipped over quickly as time grows short and the Board and audience grows restless.

I DO know that Common Core has always tried to slow things down and delve more deeply into topics, and this has led to this exact same debate in years past. Common Core itself is a subject of massive controversy which has also been discussed in articles on my blog.

I will add a link to the slides in my blog article and add the qualifications above, but I don’t have the time to watch yet another five hour board meeting. Something is clearly wrong with this method of decision making.

NOTE – for those of you who are so motivated, the link to the Board meeting video is here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EOKVK5VFzrQ. The meeting went on for SEVEN hours apparently.

NOTE added 3/27/21 at 9:30 PM: Gene McKenna has provided notes/comments on the Board meeting video on this topic at

https://docs.google.com/document/d/1R41a3drvVVszgN7YQ4tsyKMj3tYz5YgAzHTyziS2pls/edit#heading=h.x4a5kbnpgepe

Author: David Kristofferson

Retired scientist, teacher, bioinformatician, IT director, software product manager, AAAS Fellow, avid cyclist (7690 miles and 724,300 feet of climbing in 2015), backpacker, you name it! Current avocation is tutoring high school students near San Mateo, CA in mathematics, physics and chemistry. Please see the Bio link in the right sidebar for my detailed background information.

3 thoughts on “The Local Math Wars Begin *Again*”

  1. In the 1930s my granny used to see the horse and buggy drawn vegetable carts mixed in with cars that few people could afford. Some who could afford cars were still very uncomfortable around them because they were so new. Progress is slow. I find it hard to understand why a new way of doing things is automatically bad. American mathematics is the horse and buggy and the rest of the world is the car. I have taught math for 20 years. High school for 10 and middle school for 10. With the positive move to Common Core many standards that were in 10th grade geometry moved to 6th, 7th, and 8th grade. Algebra 1 solving 1 and 2 step equations is now embedded in math 7 and math 8. Algebra 2 standards such as systems of equations moved to 8th grade. 6th, 7th, 8th and Algebra 1 all have Algebra, Geometry , Statistics, and Probability in the courses. This is to start to catch up to the rest of the world. I have noticed new students from other countries don’t say” I learned that is the 6th grade” as much now. But we are STILL behind as a country. The so called “acceleration” tracked pathways that existed before removing Algebra from 8th grade, ill prepared students for high school college level math course. I was a math tutor while getting my Math degree at Cal. I say it all the time, at Cal and every other university accelerated meant doubling and taking more math classes. So “advanced” math kids should be able to comfortably double up Algebra 1 and Geometry in 9th grade. Honors at Cal (and Stanford and everywhere else) means going deeper into a subject and into graduate level concepts , but not tracking. Tracking doesn’t exist at the university level so it should not exist in K-12. Also to the high school math teachers who are against it, most of my colleagues who objected just didn’t want to teach “those kids” and hated teaching freshmen and Algebra 1. So changing the middle school system changes their jobs so now they have to teach ALL kids. But many of us don’t mind teacher all public school children. We are excited to help them all equally. For “advanced” k-12 math students they should be allowed to take more than one math course and more types of math course should be offered in 6-12 grade. I would even advocate extra math classes for that for k-5. That could be for GATE students or whoever liked math. Math finance, set theory, number theory, abstract algebra, linear algebra, data science, complex analysis and discrete math to name a few. The possibilities are fun and endless. Then all kids could chose what they liked in addition to their regular math class. We should collectively be fighting for more math teachers to teach more math classes not fighting against the future. So to the parents still clinging to the math horse and buggy and the way they did math 🧮 for the last hundred years, please open your minds and support progress for you children and 🇺🇸 for America.

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    1. Hi Rori. Thanks for your comment and perspective. You also have an interesting website. I would like to respond to some of your points above though.

      “Tracking doesn’t exist at the university level so it should not exist in K-12.”

      Sorry, but tracking took place during the admissions process which disqualified those who were unfortunately not prepared. After that students are essentially free to track themselves by choosing a major. University curricula are also not laboring under state standards which direct them to cover a wide variety of topics. It is quite a stretch to argue against tracking in K-12 based on what goes on in a university.

      “So “advanced” math kids should be able to comfortably double up Algebra 1 and Geometry in 9th grade.”

      I have tried elsewhere in this blog to argue for a well-rounded education in high school and against excessive specialization. I realize that this is not a popular position these days, but as a tutor during my retirement for AP physics and calculus, I see too many kids already taking too many classes and failing to appreciate what they are learning in the rush to prepare for those infernal exams. See for example my article entitled “Mutual Assured Destruction” at https://eduissues.com/2018/03/16/mutual-assured-destruction/ .

      And finally too many of these supposedly advanced programs have blown up when put into practice, so I am not convinced by appeals to “please open your minds and support progress for you children and 🇺🇸 for America.”

      “Everyday Mathematics” was tried in the SMFCSD and abandoned after several years. I am still seeing the ill effects on high school students who went through that program in elementary school. My article on CPM on this blog ( https://eduissues.com/2017/08/28/pros-and-cons-of-the-cpm-math-textbook-series/ ) has comments from people (teachers, students and parents) around the country and has been viewed more than 17,000 times. This is another program that has been touted as a savior of American mathematics by teachers, but is less enthusiastically received by those subjected to it. One can always give assorted reasons about why the program “is great but wasn’t implemented correctly.” Unfortunately those excuses do not help the kids who were impacted by the failed roll out.

      In engineering there is the acronym KISS, and these programs often fail to heed that warning. What might work great in a university high school test setting has no guarantee of widespread success at scale. Also comparing what works internationally in, e.g., a small city state like Singapore which is over 90% ethnic Chinese, to the diversity of ethnicities and income levels in the United States is fraught with danger.

      If you want to send me a list of typo corrections to your post in another comment, I would be happy to make them for you and then delete the typo list comment. Unfortunately the WordPress software does not allow readers to correct typos themselves after they post.

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