Opinion: Math is really hard, so of course everyone has an opinion on it

A 12th-grade student studies from a math workbook at Roybal Learning Center in Los Angeles.
(Los Angeles Times)

Almost everything seems polarizing nowadays, but math education stands out as one of those rare nonpolitical topics on which everyone seems to have a strong opinion. Those of us who went to school in California surely remember clawing our way into advanced trigonometry or calculus to get into our preferred UC or Cal State campus, or barely finishing algebra to earn that high school diploma. Other subjects could be rigorous, but sheer hard work and reading stamina could earn you high marks in history or literature. Math demanded to be understood before it rewarded you.

So, with politics entering the mix, it isn’t surprising to see so many readers commenting on California’s consideration of a math instruction framework that would keep students of varying abilities in the same classes until late in high school. Already there have been multiple letters in The Times on this topic since the newspaper’s first article about the new framework was published more than two weeks ago. Most recently, an editorial welcoming some aspects of the new guidelines, but also lamenting the potential impacts on advance learners, prompted a few dozen more readers to write us, some of whom shared their experiences struggling with or mastering math in school.

If people are going to have strong opinions on something, it may as well be something that isn’t about a certain ex-president.


To the editor: I agree with the proposed math instruction plan for California.

I remember attending El Cerrito High School in the Bay Area and being placed in a class called “generic algebra” as a junior. Other students got ahead in AP classes that prepared them for college, while those of us in generic algebra felt as if we were being babysat.


Many of us in that class did not come from intellectually stimulating environments. We were from single-parent households, mainly consisting of Black mothers, many of whom worked multiple jobs and could not provide the time or support for their children to excel in science and math.

For children to excel in all areas, especially in math and science, we need a new framework that gives opportunities to students who are at risk of falling behind their “gifted” peers. I am not against parents making sure their kids go above and beyond and excel in math; however, programs outside regular school hours exist.

April Clark, Long Beach


To the editor: Your editorial called teaching algebra in eighth grade a “crazy requirement” and complained that less than “20% of Black students met math standards.”

The requirement was modeled on what is actually happening in China, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan. During the time this goal was in place in California (1998-2013), the fraction of students taking algebra by eighth grade quadrupled from 16% to 67%, while at the same time their success rate went from less than 40% to 55%.

Furthermore, the rate of minority or disadvantaged students successfully completing algebra in eighth grade rose much faster than that of white students.

In other words, by 2013, before California replaced its own standards with Common Core, we were well on our way to essentially universal algebra by eighth grade, with disadvantaged students its biggest beneficiaries, on par with our international competitors. Common Core reversed this trend, and now the editorial board is praising parts of a math framework that would put a complete stop to that.

Ze’ev Wurman, Palo Alto

The writer was a U.S. Department of Education official in the George W. Bush administration and served on the California Academic Content Standards Commission in 2010.


To the editor: I have followed the pros and cons regarding the teaching of math with children of all levels of ability combined.

When I was in school in the 1940s, there was no tracking. My best friend and I were, most of the time, finished with assignments early, so our 6th-grade teacher would give us more to do, mostly crafts projects.

I just hope that this will not happen under this new system. I’m not sure how I feel about tracking groups, but I realize it will be very difficult for teachers to deal with 30 or more children at different places in their learning.

Julie May, Los Angeles


To the editor: If our country is going to be competitive in critical STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and math), we cannot adopt a system of math instruction that does not allow exceptional students to satisfy their curiosity and creativity, and to engage in math concepts early on.

To “reject ideas of natural gifts and talent,” as your editorial puts it, ignores research and the experience of educators.

Our children would be better served by an education system that provides rich learning for all students, regardless of race or gender, and provides pathways for success and access to the most rigorous learning. Giftedness is very real and is not racist. Rather, the systems that identify and nurture giftedness are.

Improving diversity in the workplace starts at birth. Let’s focus on providing support and systems that give every child access to a high-quality education, leading to equitable access to the American dream.

Janice Kolodinski, Los Angeles