Here’s a bit of Nellie Bowles’s weekly news summary that I highlighted on Saturday.
→ Make algebra illegal! Progressives have been waging a long battle against accelerated math courses in middle and high school, and they are winning. A lot. First they won San Francisco, where Algebra I was banned in public middle schools. Now this week, they basically got that to be the new California math policy. And it’s been spreading: Cambridge, Massachusetts, and other school districts have followed suit. Basically, white parents are 1) convinced that black kids simply can’t learn algebra and the only possible solution is to ban the class, and 2) alarmed how much better the Asian kids are at this class and worried it might hurt little Miffy’s prospects. For now, just read this great takedown by economics writer Noah Smith: “Refusing to teach kids math will not improve equity.”
Well, of course you have to check the references for yourself, but by and large they do check out. Remember that in America “middle school” is all secondary school from grade 6 up to the beginning of high school, which is grade 9—students from about twelve to fifteen years old. Nellie’s explanation for the banning of algebra, however, is undoubtedly correct.
First, let’s check out her three claims, which I’ve put in bold below. Two of them are accurate, and one is semi-accurate:
2.) New California math policy bans algebra in middle schools: This appears to be questionable. The source above says this (my emphasis):
Critics, including many parents of high-achieving students, worried that students would be prohibited from taking appropriately challenging courses—and that delaying Algebra until 9th grade wouldn’t leave students enough time to take calculus, generally viewed as a prerequisite for competitive colleges, by their final year in high school.
That language has since been revised. The approved framework still suggests that most students take Algebra I or equivalent courses in 9th grade, through either a traditional pathway or an “integrated” pathway that blends different math topics throughout each year of high school.
But the framework notes that “some students” will be ready to accelerate in 8th grade. It cautions that schools offering Algebra in middle school assess students for readiness and provide options for summer enrichment support that can prepare them to be successful.
This implies that algebra will be optional (as other sources say) in the 8th grade, the last year of “middle school” (“junior high school” as mine was called). It’s possible that some schools won’t offer it, though.
HOWEVER, the new California standards don’t appear to ban algebra, though I haven’t read them carefully. What they seem to offer up to grade 8 is a form of optional algebra: “algebra lite”. Perhaps that’s why Nellis said “basically” that is the new California math policy. From a FAQ on the state’s website:
Chapter 8 of the draft Mathematics Framework notes that: “Some students will be ready to accelerate into Algebra I or Mathematics I in eighth grade, and, where they are ready to do so successfully, this can support greater access to a broader range of advanced courses for them.”
The framework also notes that successful acceleration requires a strong mathematical foundation, and that earlier state requirements that all students take eighth grade Algebra I were not implemented in a manner that proved optimal for all students. It cites research about successful middle school acceleration leading to positive outcomes for achievement and mathematics coursetaking, built on an overhaul of the middle school curriculum to prepare students for Mathematics I in eighth grade, teacher professional development and collaborative planning time, and an extra lab class for any students wanting more help.
To support successful acceleration, the framework also urges, in chapter 8: “For schools that offer an eighth grade Algebra course or a Mathematics I course as an option in lieu of Common Core Math 8, both careful plans for instruction that links to students’ prior course taking and an assessment of readiness should be considered. Such an assessment might be coupled with supplementary or summer courses that provide the kind of support for readiness that Bob Moses’ Algebra project has provided for many years for underrepresented students tackling Algebra.”
3.) Cambridge, Massachusetts bans algebra in middle schools. The link above, via the Boston Globe, appears to give an accurate account: algebra is banned until high school:
Cambridge Public Schools no longer offers advanced math in middle school, something that could hinder his son Isaac from reaching more advanced classes, like calculus, in high school. So Udengaard is pulling his child, a rising sixth grader, out of the district, weighing whether to homeschool or send him to private school, where he can take algebra 1 in middle school.
Udengaard is one of dozens of parents who recently have publicly voiced frustration with a years-old decision made by Cambridge to remove advanced math classes in grades six to eight. The district’s aim was to reduce disparities between low-income children of color, who weren’t often represented in such courses, and their more affluent peers. But some families and educators argue the decision has had the opposite effect, limiting advanced math to students whose parents can afford to pay for private lessons, like the popular after-school program Russian Math, or find other options for their kids, like Udengaard is doing.
Now getting rid of the algebra option in middle school, which is where I took it, is about the dumbest thing I can imagine, even if you buy the rationale: to “level the playing field of knowledge” so that the variation in math knowledge is reduced among all students, providing a kind of “knowledge equity”. Because minority students don’t do as well in algebra as white students or especially Asian students, by eliminating algebra you reduce the disparity in achievement among groups. But preventing advanced students from taking algebra before high school only punishes those students, including minority students, who have the ability and desire to handle algebra. It prevents those students from going on to calculus, and perhaps other advanced math classes, early in high school. The result: a impediment in the way of students who want to and have the ability to go onto STEMM careers. This may be the craziest move I’ve seen done in the name of “equity”: removing the ability of capable students to access classes they want and can handle.
But Noah Smith’s column, cited by Nellie above, gives a much better summary, underlining the sheer lunacy of this policy. Click to read:
A few days after Armand’s post, the new California Math Framework was adopted. Some of the worst provisions had been thankfully watered down, but the basic strategy of trying to delay the teaching of subjects like algebra remained. It’s a sign that the so-called “progressive” approach to math education championed by people like Stanford’s Jo Boaler has not yet engendered a critical mass of pushback.
And meanwhile, the idea that teaching kids less math will create “equity” has spread far beyond the Golden State. The city of Cambridge, Massachusetts recently removed algebra and all advanced math from its junior high schools, on similar “equity” grounds.
It is difficult to find words to describe how bad this idea is without descending into abject rudeness. The idea that offering children fewer educational resources through the public school system will help the poor kids catch up with rich ones, or help the Black kids catch up with the White and Asian ones, is unsupported by any available evidence of which I am aware. More fundamentally, though, it runs counter to the whole reason that public schools exist in the first place.
The idea behind universal public education is that all children — or almost all, making allowance for those with severe learning disabilities — are fundamentally educable. It is the idea that there is some set of subjects — reading, writing, basic mathematics, etc. — that essentially all children can learn, if sufficient resources are invested in teaching them.
. . . When you ban or discourage the teaching of a subject like algebra in junior high schools, what you are doing is withdrawing state resources from public education. There is a thing you could be teaching kids how to do, but instead you are refusing to teach it. In what way is refusing to use state resources to teach children an important skill “progressive”? How would this further the goal of equity?
. . .Now imagine what will happen if we ban kids from learning algebra in public junior high schools. The kids who have the most family resources — the rich kids, the kids with educated parents, etc. — will be able to use those resources to compensate for the retreat of the state. Either their parents will teach them algebra at home, or hire tutors, or even withdraw them to private schools. Meanwhile, the kids without family resources will be out of luck; since the state was the only actor who could have taught them algebra in junior high, there’s now simply no one to teach them. The rich kids will learn algebra and the poor kids will not.
That will not be an equitable outcome.
In fact, Smith cites a fairly well-known study from Dallas Texas in which students were all put into honors math classes and were forced to opt out instead of opt in. This policy was implemented in 2019-2020, and the result was a dramatic increase in ethnic diversity in honors math classes in the sixth grade (students about 12 years old). The rise is stunning. This is what we could have if we challenge students rather than accept their deficiencies. But no, that’s not the “progressive” way, which is to dumb down everything to the lowest level.
, , , , How did we end up in a world where “progressive” places like California and Cambridge, Massachusetts believe in teaching children less math via the public school system, while a city in Texas believes in and invests in its disadvantaged kids? What combination of performativity, laziness, and tacit disbelief in human potential made the degradation of public education a “progressive” cause célèbre? I cannot answer this question; all I know is that the “teach less math” approach will work against the cause of equity, while also weakening the human capital of the American workforce in the process.
We created public schools for a reason, and that reason still makes sense. Teach the kids math. They can learn.
I’m not even going to get into the debate about those who suggest that math class could be a way (surprise!) of teaching social justice. That’s also part of the revised California standards, and is summarized in this article by the Sacramento Observer (click to read):
A short excerpt:
The state of California is under scrutiny for its release of a math framework that aims to incorporate “social justice” into mathematics, despite calls from parents for improved education. The California Department of Education (CDE) and the California State Board of Education (SBE) unveiled the instructional guidance for public school teachers last week.
One crucial section of the framework [JAC: go to chapter 2 of the link] emphasizes teaching “for equity and engagement” and encourages math educators to adopt a perspective of “teaching toward social justice.” The CDE and SBE suggest that cultivating “culturally responsive” lessons, which highlight the contributions of historically marginalized individuals to mathematics, can help accomplish this goal. The guidance further advocates for avoiding a single-minded focus on one way of thinking or one correct answer.
It’s clear from reading the California standards (especially Chapter 2 above) that “equity” means not just equal opportunity, but equal outcomes. I want to take a second to address that because a few readers have maintained that “equity” simply means “equal opportunity”. If that were the case, we wouldn’t need the word “equity,” would we? No, equity is understood, in all the discussions above, to mean equal outcomes: children of all ethnic groups should be on par in their math learning.
That this is the standard meaning of equity (i.e., “groups should be represented in a discipline exactly in proportion to their presence in a population”) is instantiated in this well known cartoon:
Now this cartoon has a valid point: “equality” means little if groups start out with two strikes against them. But it’s also clear that “equity” means “equal outcomes” (more boxes) not equal opportunity (everybody gets a box). I’m completely in favor of equality of opportunity for all groups, recognizing at the same time that this is the “hard problem” of society, one that won’t be solved easily. But it has to be solved if you believe in fairness.
I’m not a huge fan of equity, simply because it’s often used as proof of ongoing “systemic racism”, when in fact there are many other causes for unequal representation. Further, it’s the single-minded drive for “equity” that has led to to ridiculous actions like removing algebra from middle school.