If all went according to plan, California would have adopted new rules for math education in public schools this month.
But since the draft was opened to public comment in February, the recommendations have sparked fierce debate not only about how to teach mathematics, but also how to solve a problem more complex than Fermat’s latest theorem: eliminating racial and social economic inequality in the world. achievements that persist at all levels of mathematics education.
The California guidelines, which are optional, could completely change the way many school districts approach math teaching. The project rejected the idea of naturally gifted children, advised against transferring some students to crash courses in high school, and attempted to promote high-level math courses that could serve as alternatives to mathematical analysis such as data science or statistics.
The project also suggested that mathematics should not be color blind and that teachers could use lessons to study social justice – for example, by paying attention to gender stereotypes in word problems or applying mathematical concepts to topics such as immigration or inequality.
The battle for mathematics is taking place at a time when educational policy on issues including masks, testing and teaching racism has become embroiled in fierce controversy. Glenn Youngkin, Republican nominee for governor of Virginia, tackled these issues to help him win Tuesday. Now Republicans are debating how these education issues can help them in next year’s midterm elections.
Even in highly democratic California – a state with 6 million public school students and a huge influence on textbook publishing across the country – the draft guidelines have been heavily criticized, with accusations that the framework will bring “awakened” politics to a subject that should be practical. … and accurate.
“People will really fight to keep the math the same,” said Joe Bohler, Stanford University professor of education who is working on the revision. “Even parents who hated math in school will object to their kids being the same.”
The battle for mathematical pedagogy is as old as the multiplication table. An idea called “new mathematics,” presented as a more conceptual approach to the subject, flourished in the 1960s. About a decade ago, during the debate over the Common Core national standards, many parents complained about math exercises, which they said were ditching line-by-line calculations in favor of real characters.
Today, the battles for California guidelines revolve around a fundamental question: what or who is math for?
Test results regularly show that math students in the United States lag behind students from other industrialized countries. And within the country, a persistent racial achievement gap persists. According to the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, about 16% of high school students were black students in the 2015/16 school year, but 8% of them were enrolled in calculus. White and Asian students were overrepresented in high-level courses.
“We have a state and a nation that hate mathematics and do poorly at it,” Bohler said.
Critics of the project said the authors would punish honors by limiting opportunities for gifted programs. In an open letter signed by hundreds of Californians in science and technology, the project is described as “an endless river of new pedagogical fads that effectively distort and supplant real mathematics.”
Williamson M. Evers, a senior fellow at the Independent Institute and formerly in the Department of Education under the George W. Bush administration, was one of the authors of the letter and objected to the idea that mathematics could be a tool for social development. activism.
“I think this is really wrong,” he said in an interview. “Mathematics is mathematics. Two plus two equals four. “
Concerns about the project have reached Fox News. In May, Bohler’s name and photo were featured in an episode of “Tucker Carlson Tonight,” which she did not know about until she began receiving nasty letters from strangers.
Like some reform efforts in past decades, the draft California Guidelines favor a more conceptual approach to learning: more collaboration and problem solving, less memorization of formulas.
It also contributed to the so-called abolition of tracking, which keeps students together for longer, rather than dividing the honors into advanced classes before high school.
The San Francisco Unified School District is already doing something similar. There, high school students in mathematics are not divided into parts, but rather take integrated courses designed to develop their understanding from year to year, although high school students can still choose high-level lessons such as calculus.
16-year-old Sophia Alemayehu, a high school student in San Francisco, has moved along this unified path, although she did not always consider herself a gifted student of mathematics. Now she is engaged in in-depth calculation.
“In eighth and ninth grades, the teachers told me, ‘Oh, you’re really good at stuff,’” she said. “So it got me thinking, maybe I’m good at math.”
The model has been in effect since 2014, providing data on conservation and diversity over several years that have been selected by experts on both sides of the anti-tracking debate. And while the data is compounded by numerous variables, including a pandemic, those who support the San Francisco model say it has resulted in more students and a diversified enrollment of students taking advanced courses without lowering the honors.
“You’ll hear people say that this is the lowest common denominator that prevents gifted children from getting promoted,” said Elizabeth Hull Barnes, county supervisor for math. “And then it seems not, our data refutes that.”
But Evers, a former Department of Education official, pointed to research showing that math performance data in places like San Francisco was more carefully selected than convincing. He added that the proposed structure in California could take a more subtle approach to de-tracking, which he saw as a crude tool that did not address the needs of individual areas.
Other critics of tracking cancellation say it is a drag on children who benefit from difficult material and that it could hurt lagging learners who may need more targeted instruction.
Divya Chabra, a math teacher at a high school in Dublin, California, said the state should focus more on teaching quality by finding or teaching more certified, experienced teachers.
Without this, she says, potential learners will quickly fall behind, and it will only hurt them to give up options for advanced learning. “I am so sorry for these students,” Chabra said. “We cut the legs of the students so that they can catch up with those who do not do well in math.”
Tracking is part of a broader discussion about college access. Under the current system, students who do not transfer to high school for crash courses may never get the opportunity to undergo mathematical analysis, which has long served as an informal gatekeeper for admission to selected schools.
According to the Department of Education, math analysis isn’t even offered in most schools that serve large numbers of blacks and Hispanics.
“The role of calculus has been a topic of discussion among mathematics educators for many years,” said Trena Wilkerson, president of the National Council of Mathematics Teachers. “If calculus is not the main thing, then we need everyone to understand what the different paths can be and how to prepare students for the future,” she said.
California guidelines aim to expand opportunities for high-level mathematics so that students can take courses in, for example, data science or statistics without losing their college entrance advantage. (This move requires support from colleges; in recent years, the UCLA system has downgraded the importance of overdrafts.)
At the moment, the revision process has reached a kind of break: the draft is being revised before the next round of public comment, and only in late spring, or maybe in the summer, the state board of education will decide whether to give its seal. approval.
But even then, counties will be able to opt out of the state’s recommendations. And where they agree, academic performance – in the form of test scores, retention rates, and college readiness – will add to a stormy sea of data about what types of math education work best.
In other words, the conversation is far from over.
“We have had a very difficult time rebuilding math education in this country,” said Linda Darling-Hammond, president of the California Board of Education. “We cannot restrict well-trained, thoughtful mathematics to just a few people. We need to make it widely available. In this sense, I do not mind that this is a problem of social justice. “