The modern world runs on mathematics.
From balancing a checkbook to calculating rocket trajectories, human beings rely on their ability to understand and use mathematical tools, and we expect our schools to develop those tools in their young charges.
But how and when?
For the past eight months, a philosophical war has raged in California education circles over a plan to sharply, even radically, change math instruction at all grade levels.
‘Mathematics Framework’ Addresses Negative and Exclusive Mentality
In January, the state Instructional Quality Commission released a draft “mathematics framework” that would shift instruction from the traditional, and somewhat linear, approach to one steeped in race and culture, or “woke” in contemporary parlance.
The draft declares that traditional math instruction, in which students progress from counting and simple arithmetic into geometry, algebra, trigonometry and eventually calculus as they advance through the grades, “has much to correct (because) the subject and community of mathematics has a history of exclusion and filtering, rather than inclusion and welcoming.”
“There persists a mentality that some people are ‘bad in math’ (or otherwise do not belong), and this mentality pervades many sources and at many levels,” the draft continues. “Girls and Black and Brown children, notably, represent groups that more often receive messages that they are not capable of high-level mathematics, compared to their White and male counterparts.”
To counter that perceived shortcoming, the proposal would have students of all innate abilities remain together well into high school, essentially eliminating accelerated moves into higher-level mathematics, such as calculus, by those who exhibit desire and aptitude.
Reorienting from Linear Manipulation to a Tool for Social Justice
Moreover, math instruction would be reoriented from the linear manipulation of numbers into a tool for social justice.
“Mathematics educators have an imperative to impart upon their students the argument that mathematics is a tool that can be used to both understand and change the world,” the draft declares.
The draft generated a backlash from advocates of traditional math, including an open letter signed by hundreds of academics.
“California is on the verge of politicizing K-12 math in a potentially disastrous way,” the letter declared. “Its proposed Mathematics Curriculum Framework is presented as a step toward social justice and racial equity, but its effect would be the opposite – to rob all Californians, especially the poorest and most vulnerable, who always suffer most when schools fail to teach their students.
As textbooks and other teaching materials approved by the state would have to follow this framework and since teachers are expected to use it as a guide, its potential to steal a promising future from our children is enormous.”
Critics Say to Do Better at Teaching and Less Questioning of Tradition
Rather than reframe math in social justice terms, the critics contend, California should do a better job of teaching math skills that students will need in the real world, particularly students from disadvantaged backgrounds.
Advocates of the new curriculum are playing with the lives of millions of children and the state’s economic and societal future. Implicitly they are shifting blame for the state’s embarrassingly low scores in nationwide math achievement tests from themselves to the traditional way math has been taught.
How, then, do they explain why kids in other states and nations are thriving with traditional math? Can they prove that their proposal will improve real world outcomes, or are they just indulging their ideological fantasies?
CalMatters is a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s state Capitol works and why it matters. For more stories by Dan Walters, go to calmatters.org/commentary.