Guest post by Boaz Barak and Jelani Nelson
In a recent post, Lance Fortnow critiqued our open letter on the proposed revisions for the California Mathematics Framework (CMF). We disagree with Lance’s critique, and he has kindly allowed us to post our rebuttal here (thank you Lance!).
First, let us point out the aspects where we agree with both Lance and the authors of the CMF. Inequality in mathematical education, and in particular the obstacles faced by low-income students and students of color, is a huge problem in the US at large and California in particular. As a Black mathematician, this portion of the CMF’s introduction particularly resonated with me (Jelani):
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 (Shah & Leonardo, 2017). As early as preschool and kindergarten, research and policy documents use deficit-oriented labels to describe Black and Latinx and low-income children’s mathematical learning and position them as already behind their white and middle-class peers (NCSM & TODOS, 2016).
We agree with the observation that bias in the public education system can have a negative impact on students from underrepresented groups. Where we strongly oppose the CMF though is regarding their conclusions on how to address this concern.
The CMF may state that they are motivated by increasing equity in mathematics. However, if we read past the introduction to the actual details of the CMF revisions, then we see they suffer from fundamental flaws, which we believe if implemented, would exacerbate educational gaps, and in particular make it harder for low-income students and students of color to reach and be successful in college STEM.
You can read our detailed critique of the CMF, but the revisions we take issue with are:
to drop the option of Algebra I in the 8th grade
- Recommendation to offer (and in fact push and elevate above others) a “data science” pathway for high school education as an alternative to the traditional Algebra and Geometry curriculum. While data science can be a deep and important field, teaching it for students without a math background will be necessarily shallow. Indeed, the proposed data science courses focus on tools such as using spreadsheets etc., and do not provide mathematical foundations.
1 and 2 make it all but impossible for students that follow the recommended path to reach calculus (perhaps even pre-calculus) in the 12th grade. This means that such students will be at a disadvantage if they want to pursue STEM majors in college. And who will be these students? Since the CMF is only recommended, wealthier school districts are free to reject it, and some already signalled that they will do so. Within districts that do adopt the recommendations, students with means are likely to take private Algebra I courses outside the curriculum (as already happened in San Francisco), and reject the calculus-free “data science” pathway. Hence this pathway will amount to a lower-tier track by another name, and worse than now, students will be tracked based on whether their family has the financial means to supplement the child’s public education with private coursework.
Notably, though the CMF aims to elevate data science, we’ve had several data science faculty at the university level express disapproval of the proposal by signing our opposition letter, including a founding faculty member of the Data Science Institute at UCSD, and several others who are directors of various undergraduate programs at their respective universities, including four who direct their universities' undergraduate data science programs (at Indiana University, Loyola University in Chicago, MIT, and the University of Wisconsin)!
One could say that while the framework may hurt low-income or students of color who want to pursue STEM in college, it might help other students who are not interested in STEM. However, interest in STEM majors is rapidly rising, and with good reasons: employment in math occupations is projected to grow much faster than other occupations. With the increasing centrality of technology and STEM to our society, we urgently need reforms that will diversify these professions rather than the other way around.
As a final note, Lance claimed that by rejecting the CMF, we are “defending the status quo”. This is not true. The CMF revisions are far from the “only game in town” for improving the status quo in mathematics education. In fact, unlike these largely untested proposals, there is a history of approaches that do work for teaching mathematics for under-served populations. We do not need to change the math itself, just invest in more support (including extracurricular support) for students from under-resourced communities. For example, Bob Moses’ Algebra Project has time and again taken the least successful students according to standardized exams, and turned them into a cohort that outperformed state averages in math. One of our letter’s contact people is Adrian Mims, an educator with 27 years of experience, whose dissertation was on "Improving African American Achievement in Geometry Honors" and who went on to found The Calculus Project, a non-profit organization creating a pathway for low-income students and students of color to succeed in advanced mathematics.
To close, a critique of the proposed CMF revision is not a defense of the status quo. Even if change is needed, not all change is good change, and our letter does make some recommendations on the front, one of which is a matter of process: if a goal is to best prepare Californian youth for majors in data science and STEM more broadly, and ultimately careers in these spaces, then involve college-level STEM educators and STEM professionals in the Curriculum Framework and Evaluation Criteria Committee.