Clarissa Garcia works on a problem during a geometry class at Compton Early College High School.
(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)
K-12 Education

California’s math overhaul aims to help struggling students. But will it hurt whiz kids?

Supporters say proposed state K-12 framework will make higher-level math accessible to more. Critics contend it will make poor math outcomes worse.

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A proposed overhaul of California’s math teaching guide, with sweeping changes to make the subject more relevant and accessible, has ignited debate over whether it will improve poor student achievement or harm leaning for 5.8 million public school students.

The 1,000-page teaching framework goes before the state Board of Education on Wednesday — and approval is widely expected after a process that has taken more than four years and resulted in three versions.

One controversy revolves around the math requirements for admission to a University of California or California State University campus. The proposed framework offers support for substituting a data science class for the Algebra II requirement — noting that the UC system allows this alternative under a 2020 policy revision.

On Friday, however, the UC faculty committee that made the change under its authority to set admission requirements flip-flopped and voted to disallow data science as a substitute for Algebra II following widespread protests against the alternative course by UC and CSU faculty.

Then the UC Office of the President stepped into the fray Tuesday, saying in a late-night statement that it would approve data science courses to fulfill advanced math requirements for this year’s applicants for fall 2024 seats. A faculty working group will review the issue over the coming months.

It was not clear how this late UC position would affect the state school board debate and vote.

Overall, the proposed framework incorporates many changes sought by critics, but still falls short in the view of many — and comes as post-pandemic tests scores are at the lowest levels in years.

The revised document clarifies an earlier flashpoint: Schools and districts still can still pursue the goal of advanced math for students using traditional pathways that start with Algebra I and lead to Calculus.

The latest version appears to retain strong support from those who wrote the first draft.

“This is huge,” said Kyndall Brown, executive director of California Mathematics Project, who supports the teaching guide. “So many things are on hold until this framework gets finally approved. It’s like the state has been in limbo; the math education community has been in limbo. Finally things will start to be able to move forward. We will have a real direction for teaching and learning.”

The new framework focuses on “equity,” which means math teachers are given strategies for reaching students of color from low-income families.

Supporters have long wanted an early and stronger on-ramp to higher-level math for these students — as well as a roadmap to achievement for students who do not excel at math right away. This means de-emphasizing “tracking,” which groups students by perceived ability or test scores.

The first draft touted the benefits of grouping students of all math levels together until well into high school. That first draft also de-emphasized calculus as a goal for high school math.

The pushback was immediate — and strong enough to delay the process for at least a year. Critics saw a watering down of standards — and a counterproductive effort to hold back students who were ready for more advanced math, putting them at a competitive disadvantage in applying for college with students from other states and private schools.

State Board of Education President Linda Darling-Hammond said Tuesday that the document has evolved to address such fears.

“There are multiple ways to get to calculus, and also lots of encouragement for people to think about progress in math — and not about math as just an early tracking system, where some kids are going to get to advanced math and others will not have a chance to do that,” Darling-Hammond said. “Accelerate where kids are ready to accelerate, but also make sure that there are opportunities for others.”

Critics remain dissatisfied.

“Each draft fixed some problems but left many others unchanged,” said Brian Conrad, a math professor and director of undergraduate studies at Stanford. “A major overhaul is necessary.”

Others were more blunt.

“The progressive-education authors of the math framework want students to learn through their own inquiry and self-discovery,” blogged Williamson M. Evers, director of the Center on Educational Excellence at the Independent Institute. “The authors give little emphasis to mastery of facts and standard algorithms” but instead promote “vague, billowy ‘big ideas.’ ”

The academics who wrote the first draft — and who continue to lobby for the framework — say students with different math levels could be in the same class learning about the same “big idea,” but they would approach it at their own level. The teacher would challenge the more advanced students with more complex work. This is called differentiated instruction and, to some degree, it happens all the time in class.

Supporters say this structure opens the way to advanced math at all times to students with unrealized potential. But others worry that well-prepared students will be held back — rather than progressing appropriately at their more advanced level.

UC and the data science controversy

The controversy over whether high school data science courses can substitute for Algebra II to meet admission requirements for UC and Cal State was triggered in 2020.

At the time, a UC faculty committee approved the change but debate continued over whether these data courses contained adequate mathematical content. Those who objected included a majority of Black faculty members in UC science, math, technology and engineering fields, who said the change would harm students of color by steering them away from STEM fields and undermine university efforts to improve diversity and equity.

The CSU Academic Senate joined in the debate, saying a widely used data course provided “inadequate preparation for college and career readiness.”

In the face of such opposition, the UC academic committee reversed its policy days before the state hearing, voting to “disallow” data science courses as a way to demonstrate the necessary mastery of Algebra I and II concepts. It also voted to form a working group to determine what qualifies as “advanced math.”

In its statement Tuesday, the UC Office of the President noted the “continued discussion about the adequacy of a small number of data science courses — not data science broadly — in the context of our systemwide student preparedness expectations.” As the working group begins its review, “the University will still recognize the existing advanced math courses approved to fulfill the subject requirement, including precalculus, calculus, linear algebra, trigonometry, statistics, discrete math, and courses in data science, for this year’s applicants to the University.”

Reversing low math achievement

The starting point in the debate centers on low math achievement. Although test scores in math declined sharply during the pandemic, they already were trending downward nationally even before COVID-19.

Comparisons to other countries are flawed, but it’s widely accepted, based on international testing, that the math skills of U.S. students are below average. On national tests, California is below the norm compared to other states: An estimated 23% of the state’s students achieve proficiency in math.

The new framework aligns with experts who favor a more thoughtful, potentially slower pacing in math instruction as a civil rights issue. In their view, too many Latino and Black students and those from low-income families have been left behind as part of a math race in which a small number of students reach calculus.

In an earlier interview, Darling-Hammond noted that an underlying goal of the framework is simply to modernize math education.

A teacher observes students in a classroom.
Teacher Jaime Fisette checks on her students’ progress during math class at El Segundo Middle School.
(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

“Part of what’s going on in the framework is an attempt to bring mathematics education into the 21st century,” Darling-Hammond said. “The old [way], the idea that calculus is the capstone, is one that originates with a committee of 10 men in 1892.”

Elevating data science makes sense because it would be more valuable for many students than calculus, she said.

The framework also builds on the state’s existing push toward integrated math, which sets aside the traditional sequence of math instruction: computation, algebra, geometry and ultimately advanced algebra, trigonometry and calculus.

Instead, concepts from all areas are introduced early on and brought together to solve problems — as might happen in a real-world use of math.

The traditional math sequence and teaching practices have worked well for some students. But math-related fields continue to be dominated by white men, supplemented by workers who learned math in other countries or who grew up in a family or culture that emphasized math attainment.

Critics, including many parents, fear the new approaches will limit opportunities for gifted and well-prepared students to reach advanced math, and there will be less time for them to master advanced concepts. Some argue that tracking, as long as it’s not used to exclude students by race, ethnicity or gender, can put students in groupings where their individual needs can be addressed most directly, allowing all students to learn faster.

Another concern is that many top colleges still place an emphasis on whether applicants get to calculus and how well they do in that course.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.