The Independent Institute published an Open Letter to Governor Newsom, calling for the complete abandonment of the (currently in progress) revision of the California Math Framework. Before I share my thoughts about the letter, I will ask you to please make sure you read a previous post, in which I commented on the current draft of the Framework, and predicted vigorous backlash. A new revision of the Framework —based on public input so far— will be published in early December, and at that time Californians will have a chance to give further feedback.
The Open Letter was signed by hundreds of people. I spent a bit of time looking at the list of signatories. As far as I can tell, the vast majority are professors of math, science, and engineering — many of them retired. In other words, the very people for whom traditional math education approaches have been successful. In the whole list, I found one (1) professor of education, and a couple dozen math teachers — perhaps 3% of the total. This is yet again a case of people mostly outside the field claiming expertise they do not have. For some reason, everyone thinks they know everything there is to know about math education.
This is not to say that math teachers and professors of education have all the answers, but there is a broad professional consensus that some populations have not been well served by the traditional approaches to math education. The authors of the Framework revision should be commended for trying to address that. As I discussed in my earlier post, in broad strokes, the ideas guiding them are valid, and seem to be more or less in tune with NCTM’s Catalyzing Change documents. Still, the specifics of the implementation raised serious concerns for me.
Unfortunately, the Open Letter does not address those. Instead it is pushing for a wholesale rejection of the draft Framework, and a continuation of a terribly problematic status quo. I hope they do not succeed, but I fear that their arguments will find much support. This is because while they do not engage substantially with the content of the framework, they say things that will seem commonsensical to people who have not actually read the document, and who are not acquainted with the actual issues under discussion.
The Open Letter claims that the draft Framework abandons Algebra 1 as an eighth grade course. Judging by the Department of Education FAQs, this is not true. Other than that, the Letter makes two main points.
1. The Framework intends to replace math with politics
This is entirely bogus. The Framework is intended as a guide to the implementation of the California Common Core State Standards for Math. There are valid questions about the Standards, but de-mathematizing the curriculum is not one of them. What the Open Letter objects to is half a dozen mentions of inequality, injustice, marginalized populations, and the like, in a massive document. I followed the links they provided, and found that the references to social and environmental reality were reasonable from a curricular or pedagogical point of view, and did not at all detract from actual mathematics. Addressing social justice is surely a legitimate concern of public (and private) education, and the fact that it makes some academics uncomfortable is no reason to evade that responsibility.
Still, the way to learn math is to do math. The authors of the Open Letter are trying to get support by making the self-evident point that changing the subject to social studies in math class would be a disaster. That is true, but it is not relevant, as no one is suggesting that.
2. The Framework rejects the idea that some students are more gifted than others
This is the Open Letter’s strongest argument: everyone knows that students do not all learn math at the same rate or with the same facility. Again, I followed the links.
In the first, the draft Framework does indeed appear to deny differences among students, in trying to make the point that “all students deserve powerful mathematics”. However reading on reveals that the Framework authors are fully aware that differences exist, and are attempting to address the question of what to do about those. I am not familiar with the research they cite, but I agree with the idea that no students should be given a second-rate, dead-end curriculum based on a shallow belief that math ability is 100% a matter of inborn talent.
In the second link, there is an extended analysis of the ways in which hyper-acceleration of supposedly gifted students can backfire. I largely agree with that part of the draft Framework. For more on this, see a guest post on the rush to calculus by a Penn mathematician, and my article Hyper-Acceleration in which I propose specific strategies to address this concern — including moderate acceleration.
In the end, this is really the heart of the matter: the Open Letter is an attempt to justify the continuation of an unacceptable status quo by appealing to the anxieties of parents who do not want their children’s math education to be undermined by a newfangled revision of the Math Framework. Those anxieties stem in part from a fear of a watered down curriculum, in part from a misplaced priority on speedy and superficial coverage over depth of understanding, and especially from a concern about college admissions prospects. In my view, these concerns must be taken seriously in any attempt at detracking. In Reaching the Full Range, I explain why addressing the needs of strong students is beneficial to all students, and I propose a number of practical strategies to work effectively with detracked, heterogeneous classes.
I fear that a rushed and poorly thought-out detracking process will guarantee a probably unstoppable backlash against the goal of a more equitable Math Framework. I look forward to the next version of the draft, and I hope that the promoters of reform do not make it easy for the advocates of the status quo to sink their project.