The Battle Over the California Math Framework Revision

Two stories on the California Math Framework in the media today.

5/10/2021 – Jill Tucker, the San Francisco Chronicle education reporter, published the this story today   “California’s new math war: Should schools push students to speed through algebra, calculus?” which includes a brief comment at the end from the author, Michael Malione, who wrote a guest article on this blog.  Sadly, the quotation refers to Mr. Malione as a “Piedmont dad” when he has many more qualifications than that.  Mr. Malione brought the Chronicle story and a report on Fox further below to my attention this AM.

Jill Tucker’s article provides important background information on this controversy:

California decided to require Algebra 1 in eighth grade about 25 years ago, then made it an option 10 years ago. State officials are now recommending a delay in offering the course until high school, which would eliminate the need to track students into accelerated programs in middle school, a controversial decision San Francisco made in 2014.

The goal is a deeper understanding of concepts rather than a race through memorized skill sets, supporters say.

Critics, however, question whether the effort will be an attempt to sacrifice advanced students on the altar of equity amid a desire to keep students together in math class until junior year in high school.

State officials have pushed back on the concerns with a mountain of research and support from university experts, who say the goal of racing through math courses to reach calculus too often results in a cursory understanding of the topic. That can lead to student burnout and a hatred of math that sticks with them for the rest of their lives.

As always both sides have valid points.

I see repeatedly in my tutoring practice the ill effects of accelerating kids through the math curriculum.  Nonetheless, there are children that do successfully navigate the system and who go on to successful careers in technical fields.  We live in a globally competitive environment, and as some friends have said “This is not a ‘Care Bear’ world.”

In addition I have spoken to many “techies” in the Bay Area who immigrated here from Europe, China, and India and who all say that the math education in the U.S. is trivial and covers far less material than is covered in their home countries.  While I agree with some of these points, there are also different ways of doing things in different cultures, and I discussed some of these issues in Raising our Children – American Society Reflects our Values and Choices

Public education is beset with many special interest groups with “special education” being one of the largest, not to mention other groups like those advocating for Gifted And Talented Education (GATE), those pushing for equity and the closure of the “achievement gap,” and, of course, the extremely large presence of sports programs in American education.

Public education should clearly focus on raising the overall average level of education in the country as probably its primary goal, but it also must take care of all of these other interest groups.  There is thus unfortunately no way to avoid these battles as that is part of the process by which each competing group gets it share (fair or not) of the education dollar pie (which will never be big enough to accommodate everyone’s pet project).

I continue to believe that it is a mistake to impede access to advanced math for those who are capable of learning it, but it seems to me that the discussion should focus on how we make the determination of who to admit to the program.

Currently parents who either are wealthy enough or make great sacrifices on behalf of their kids get them into pricy supplemental programs outside of school to accelerate them in math or have them always going to summer school.  This also usually leads to hiring tutors to assist the kids with the workload.

One can cry about the lack of equity in this system, but there is no way to stop this.  Attempts to restrict access to advanced math will only lead to even more parents, who can afford to do so, leaving the public school system which nationwide already has more than 50% of its students qualifying for lunch assistance.

Instead we need to put our heads together to find a way to make all parties happy, most likely by providing more dedicated funding for talented students but at the same time having clear and objective measures of who these talented students really are.  Currently, as I have said before, we tend to live in Lake Wobegon “where all children are above average.”

The advocates of the new CA Math Framework, prominently including Professor Jo Boaler at Stanford, like to talk about the fallacy of “fixed mindsets” versus “growth mindsets.”  I completely agree that these labels have branded many kids prematurely and have caused great harm.  At the same time, there is also no doubt in my mind that there ARE math geniuses, and that Boaler and company are harming their development in favor of the bulk of our students by pushing this Framework.  This CAN have national implications as the mass of society often benefits from the good work of a small number of people, and thus put our country at a disadvantage compared to less sensitive places that do not care so much for everyone’s feelings.  Do I like this?  Absolutely not.  I favor efforts to make the world a better place.  However, if other countries undercut those efforts in an attempt to get ahead, this is a valid reason for concern.

The second news story out today was from FOX News: “CA seeks end of advanced math, in the name of equity“.  While not my favorite news source by any means, this story was not too extreme for FOX, but it does focus on favorite FOX culture wars issues, with one part of the story displaying the banner “CRITICS: WOKE PLAN PUNISHES BRIGHTEST KIDS.”  Several of the quotes displayed are, once again, Jo Boaler’s talking points.

Another screen shows that 32% of gifted students are Asian Americans versus only 8% of whites, 4% of Blacks, and 3% on Latin-x students.  The reasons behind this ethnic disparity are due to a number of factors in my opinion and do not necessarily reflect a difference in innate IQ, though this may partly be the case because people who are voluntarily willing to pull up stakes, leave their homeland, and establish a new life in a foreign country tend to be above average in several traits.  It may also reflect a cultural tendency among Asian American parents to push their children harder.  It clearly does raise a question about  how decisions are made to admit children into gifted programs which reinforces my statement above that we need clear and objective admissions criteria.

The section of the Math Framework near the end of the video where students are asked to calculate a fair wage and teachers invite labor organizers into classrooms is an egregious instance of the kind of political influences that are now impacting education.  People on all sides of the political spectrum should condemn this attempt to politicize education.

The video report is only about 2.5 minutes long and is worth watching to get an opposing perspective.

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.

2 thoughts on “The Battle Over the California Math Framework Revision”

  1. My sense is that the framing of the Chronicle article poses a false dichotomy. “The goal is a deeper understanding of concepts rather than a race through memorized skill sets, supporters say.” The opposition to this 2021 framework is not intending to race every student through the mathematical material. We merely remain cognizant of the fact that individual students learn math at different paces, and for a certain small minority of students, they can achieve both deeper understanding and a faster pace.

    I also understand that the current approach has become untenable, with too many students being pushed into accelerated math primarily for the sake of gaining a competitive edge in college admissions, rather than to suit a raw inclination to learn more effectively under the accelerated format. However, insisting that all students can learn equally well by forcing them all through the same material at one common pace is only going to make the current problems even worse.

    The statement that was attributed to me in Jill Tucker’s article does ring true to my general opinion, but I never used the words “too much focus on the beauty and joy.” I’m all for appreciating the beauty and joy of math, but that appreciation depends on being able to see it for what it is, not some inaccurate, oversimplified version of it. If anything, I’m concerned about the loss of essential arithmetic skills, for reasons already articulated well in another guest posting on this blog. From what I’ve seen, the 2021 framework does nothing to abate this slide, which begins in elementary school, and I believe it will make matters worse via its pedagogical prescriptions.

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