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Math Instruction Controversy: Equity and Fairness Issues

Revising math pedagogy is nothing new, nor is debate surrounding it. In the 1960s, “new math” was center stage, with objections from opponents. A decade ago, people railed against the national Common Core standards. Yet, despite attempts to make math more accessible and approachable, testing results regularly show that math students in the US lag behind those in other industrialized nations.


The California Mathematics Framework


California recently proposed a new framework to overhaul how many school districts approach math instruction and, in doing so, stirred controversy. The California Mathematics Framework draft proposed guidelines, which are not binding, attempting to make mathematics instruction more equitable, closing the racial and socioeconomic disparities in achievement that persist at every level of math education.
While the proposal has ignited a firestorm, one fact is undisputed: The way California public schools teach math isn’t working. As a result, California ranks in the bottom quartile on national standardized tests among all states and U.S. territories for 8th-grade math scores.
 
Nearly a decade after California adopted Common Core math standards, most K-12 students are not yet meeting grade-level benchmarks, and Black and Latino students are underrepresented in rigorous accelerated programs.

According to the framework designers, the proposed new guidelines intended to accelerate achievement while making mathematical understanding more accessible and valuable to as many students as possible, including those shut out from high-level math in the past because they had been “tracked” in lower-level classes.

Traditionally, math instruction follows a hierarchical sequence of three courses: Algebra I, Geometry, Algebra II and Pre-calculus (which often includes trigonometry and math analysis), and Calculus. Tracking occurs when students take these courses in different grades, which usually begin in middle school. The California Mathematics Framework proposal promotes de-tracking, keeping students together longer instead of separating high achievers into advanced classes before high school.


“Gifted” Math Student Controversy


One of the key sticking points in the approval process has been the recommendation to refrain from labeling students as “naturally talented” or “gifted” in math. For example, the draft rejected the idea of naturally gifted children, recommended against shifting certain students into accelerated courses in middle school and tried to promote high-level math courses that could serve as alternatives to calculus, like data science or statistics.

Accusations from parents and some educators claim this holds back gifted students. However, advocates argue that critics are too fixated on protecting students who are already doing well in math. These students tend to be white, East Asian, or come from more affluent households in California.

The Calculus Controversy


The most controversial recommendation in the proposed California framework calls for offering uniform math instruction in middle school and holding Algebra I education until ninth grade. The goal is to provide extra time to prepare all students adequately for high school math.

However, that delay would hold back students ready for Algebra I in eighth grade and require high school students to add extra math courses to fit in advanced calculus, generally a requirement for majoring in science, engineering and math in college. In addition, delaying Algebra 1 until grade 9 would require other high school math classes - Geometry, Algebra 2 and Pre-Calculus - to be compressed so that students can reach AP Calculus by grade 12.
 
State data indicate that relatively few students take calculus in high school. The number of students enrolling in the most advanced calculus classes—3.7 percent in the school year beginning in 2014—dropped in four years to 3.4 percent.

There is also a persistent racial gap in achievement. For example, Black students represented about 16 percent of high school students but only eight percent of those enrolled in calculus during the 2015-16 school year.

The framework’s authors counter that taking calculus in high school shouldn’t be necessary to enter a STEM field in college and beyond, especially because calculus can be a barrier to entry for Black and Latino students. The University of California and Cal State systems have de-emphasized calculus as an admissions requirement.

Critics see it as punishing high-achieving and gifted students who accelerate in math and an attempt to eliminate calculus.

The STEM Connection


The framework’s authors contend that high school calculus courses shouldn’t be necessary to enter a STEM field in college and beyond, especially because calculus can be a barrier to entry for Black and Latino students. Instead, it suggests creating a new high school data science course as an alternative to calculus. The authors say this course will result in a more diverse student body pursuing careers in science, technology, engineering or mathematics.

According to a survey from the American Enterprise Institute, 70 percent of the STEM workforce is white, and 65 percent is male.
 
But some experts say calculus is vital to prepare students for a STEM career. They also suggest that the framework authors should have involved more STEM faculty from top California universities. The draft guidelines also encountered criticism charging that it attempts to inject politics into math, making it a tool for social activism.



Preparing Students for the Future


The final vote for the California Mathematics Framework approval is scheduled for May 2022. Regardless of the outcome, educators need skills and tools to help students prepare for the future. The National Math and Science Initiative is committed to creating a more equitable education system by providing teachers with the proper training and resources to optimize their efforts in their classrooms. 

NMSI's Laying the Foundation equips teachers to build and maintain subject matter expertise to increase students' level of rigor. Approximately 70 percent of those trained through the program work in schools serving low-income communities. 
 
NMSI's College Readiness Program focuses on rigorous STEM coursework by leveraging the College Board's proven AP framework to prepare students for college and beyond. We believe all students are capable of taking on advance coursework, and to do that, we need to meet students at their learning level – not the other way around. We've demonstrated that students attending schools that participate in NMSI's CRP are more likely to attend, persist in, and earn degrees from post-secondary institutions than those not impacted by CRP.  

No two schools are the same, and we provide flexible solutions to meet the diverse needs of school districts. Learn more about our impact.