California tries to close math gap, but triggers backlash


If all went according to plan, California would have approved new guidelines for teaching math in public schools this month.

But since a draft was opened for public comment in February, the recommendations sparked a heated debate over not only how to teach mathematics, but also how to solve a problem more intractable than Fermat’s last theorem: shutting down disparities in the realization that persist at all levels of mathematics education.

The California guidelines, which are not binding, could overhaul the way many school districts approach math education. The project rejected the idea of ​​naturally gifted children, advised against moving some students to crash courses in college, and tried to promote high-level math classes that could serve as alternatives to calculus, such as data science or maths. statistics.

The project also suggested that math should not be color blind, and that teachers could use the lessons to explore social justice – for example, by researching gender stereotypes in word problems, or applying math concepts to subjects. like immigration or inequalities.

The battle for mathematics comes at a time when educational policy, on issues such as masks, testing and teaching racism, has become entangled in bitter partisan debates. Virginia Republican gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin seized on these questions to help propel him to victory on Tuesday. Now Republicans are discussing how these education issues can help them in the midterm election next year.

Even in strongly Democratic California – a state with six million public school students and disproportionate influence over textbook publishing nationwide – the draft guidelines have met with scathing criticism, with accusations that the executive would be inject “awakened” politics in a subject that is intended to be practical and precise.

“People are really going to fight to keep math the same,” said Jo Boaler, a professor of education at Stanford University who is working on the revision. “Even parents who hated math in school will argue that it is the same for their children.”

The battle over mathematics pedagogy is a tale as old as the multiplication tables. An idea called “new mathematics”, presented as a more conceptual approach to the subject, reached its peak in the 1960s. About ten years ago, in the midst of debates over national core standards, many parents lamented the math exercises which they said seemed to abandon line-by-line calculation in favor of real hieroglyphics.

Today’s battles over California guidelines revolve around a fundamental question: what or who is mathematics for?

Test results consistently show that mathematics students in the United States lag behind those in other industrialized countries. And inside the country there is a persistent racial divide in progress. According to the data From the Department of Education’s civil rights office, black students made up about 16 percent of high school students, but 8 percent of those enrolled in arithmetic in the 2015-16 school year. White and Asian students were over-represented in high-performance courses.

“We have a state and a nation that hate math and don’t do well,” Dr. Boaler said.

Critics of the project said the authors would punish top performing students by limiting options for gifted programs. a open letter signed by hundreds of Californians working in science and technology, described the project as “an endless stream of new pedagogical modes that effectively distort and displace real mathematics.”

Williamson M. Evers, a senior fellow at the Independent Institute and a former Education Department official during the George W. Bush administration, was one of the authors of the letter and opposed the idea that the mathematics can be a tool for socialization. activism.

“I think it’s really not fair,” he said in an interview. “Math is math. Two plus two is four.

The distress caused by the draft reached Fox News. In May, Dr Boaler’s name and photograph were featured on a episode of “Tucker Carlson Tonight”, an appearance she didn’t know until she started getting nasty letters from strangers.

Like some of the reforms attempted in decades past, the California draft guidelines have fostered a more conceptual approach to learning: more collaboration and problem solving, less memorization formulas.

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

The San Francisco Unified School District is already doing something similar. There, high school mathematics students are not separated but rather take integrated courses designed to develop their understanding year after year, although older high school students can still opt for higher level courses like arithmetic.

16-year-old Sophia Alemayehu, a high school student from San Francisco, progressed on this integrated path even though she didn’t always consider herself a gifted math student. She is now following the advanced calculation.

“In eighth and ninth grades, teachers said to me, ‘Oh, you’re actually really good at it,'” she said. “So it got me thinking, maybe I’m good at math.”

The model has been in place since 2014, which gives a few years of data on retention and diversity which was taken up by experts on both sides of the de-tracking debate. And while the data is complicated by many variables – a pandemic now among them – those who support the San Francisco model say it has led to more students, and a more diverse set of students, taking courses. advanced courses, without dropping the best performing students.

“You will hear people say that it is the lowest common denominator that discourages gifted children from moving forward,” said Elizabeth Hull Barnes, the district mathematics supervisor. “And then it’s like, no, our data refutes that.”

But Dr Evers, the former head of the education ministry, pointed out research suggesting that the data on math scores in places like San Francisco was more hand picked that conclusive. He added that California’s proposed framework could take a more nuanced approach to de-tracking, which he saw as a blunt tool that ignored the needs of individual districts.

Other critics of de-tracking say it puts a damper on children who would benefit from stimulating material – and that it can hurt struggling students who might need more focused instruction.

Divya Chhabra, a math professor at Dublin College in California, said the state should focus more on the quality of education by finding or training more certified and experienced teachers.

Without it, she said, potential students would quickly fall behind, and it would only hurt them more to take away advanced learning options. “I feel so bad for these students,” she said. “We cut off students’ legs to make them equal to those who are not doing well in math. “

The monitoring is part of a larger debate on access to university. Under the current system, students who are not placed in college crash courses may never have the opportunity to take arithmetic courses, which has long been an issue. informal caretaker for acceptance to selective schools.

According to Ministry of Education dataThe math isn’t even offered in most schools that have large numbers of black and Latino students.

The role of calculus has been a topic of discussion among math teachers for years, said Trena Wilkerson, chair of the National Council of Mathematics Teachers. “If math isn’t 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’s recommendations aim to expand options for high-level math, so students can take courses in, for example, data science or statistics without losing their edge over university applications. (This decision requires college membership; in recent years, the University of California system has de-emphasized the importance of calculation credits.)

So far, the review process has reached a sort of interlude: the draft is being revised before another round of public comment, and it won’t be until late spring, or maybe there. ‘summer, that the state board of education will decide whether to give its opinion seal of approval.

But even after that, the districts will be free to withdraw from the state’s recommendations. And in places that opt, academic results – in the form of test scores, retention rates, and college readiness – will add to the stormy sea of ​​data on the types of math education that work best.

In other words, the conversation is far from over.

“We have had a hard time overhauling math education in this country,” said Linda Darling-Hammond, president of the California school board. “We cannot ration well-taught and thought-out mathematics to just a few people. We need to make it widely available. In that sense, I do not dispute that it is a question of social justice.

About Jimmie T.

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