Posted on November 8, 2021

California Tries to Close the Gap in Math, but Sets Off a Backlash

Jacey Fortin, New York Times, November 4, 2021

If everything had gone according to plan, California would have approved new guidelines this month for math education in public schools.

But ever since a draft was opened for public comment in February, the recommendations have set off a fierce debate over not only how to teach math, but also how to solve a problem more intractable than Fermat’s last theorem: closing the racial and socioeconomic disparities in achievement that persist at every level of math education.

The California guidelines, which are not binding, could overhaul the way many school districts approach math instruction. 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.

The draft also suggested that math should not be colorblind and that teachers could use lessons to explore social justice — for example, by looking out for gender stereotypes in word problems, or applying math concepts to topics like immigration or inequality.

The battle over math comes at a time when education policy, on issues including masks, testing and teaching about racism, has become entangled in bitter partisan debates. The Republican candidate for governor in Virginia, Glenn Youngkin, seized on those issues to help propel him to victory on Tuesday. Now, Republicans are discussing how these education issues can help them in the midterm elections next year.

Even in heavily Democratic California — a state with six million public school students and an outsize influence on textbook publishing nationwide — the draft guidelines encountered scathing criticism, with charges that the framework would inject “woke” politics into a subject that is supposed to be practical and precise.


Today, the battles over the California guidelines are circling around a fundamental question: What, or whom, is math for?

Testing results regularly show that math students in the United States are lagging behind those in other industrialized nations. And within the country, there is a persistent racial gap in achievement. According to data from the civil rights office of the Education Department, Black students represented about 16 percent of high school students but 8 percent of those enrolled in calculus during the 2015-16 school year. White and Asian students were overrepresented in high-level courses.


Critics of the draft said the authors would punish high achievers by limiting options for gifted programs. An open letter signed by hundreds of Californians working in science and technology described the draft as “an endless river of new pedagogical fads that effectively distort and displace actual math.”


Like some of the attempted reforms of decades past, the draft of the California guidelines favored a more conceptual approach to learning: more collaborating and problem solving, less memorizing formulas.

It also promoted something called de-tracking, which keeps students together longer instead of separating high achievers into advanced classes before high school.


Tracking is part of a larger debate about access to college. Under the current system, students who are not placed in accelerated courses by middle school may never get the opportunity to take calculus, which has long been an informal gatekeeper for acceptance to selective schools.

According to data from the Education Department, calculus is not even offered in most schools that serve a large number of Black and Latino students.

The role of calculus has been a talking point among math educators for years, said Trena Wilkerson, the president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. “If calculus is not the be-all, end-all thing, then we need everyone to understand what the different pathways can be, and how to prepare students for the future,” she said.

California’s recommendations aim to expand the options for high-level math, so that students could take courses in, say, data science or statistics without losing their edge on college applications. (The move requires buy-in from colleges; in recent years, the University of California system has de-emphasized the importance of calculus credits.)