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Op-Ed: How can we make more students fall in love with math?

A teacher in a classroom with a poster behind her that says "We all use math every day"
Keiri Ramirez teaches math to 10th-graders at Northridge Academy High School in 2020.
(Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

Companies like Google, Apple and Intel offer some of California’s most cutting-edge — and highest-paying — jobs. Last year, those three companies alone brought in more than 10,000 people from other countries to take those jobs.

Surely it’d be simpler for them to hire closer to home and skip the visa and other paperwork. Among the key reasons they don’t is that too few Californians have the skills — in particular, the deep understanding of mathematics — to qualify. It’s a situation we shouldn’t tolerate, and something the state’s new proposed math framework seeks to change.

The current system of mathematics teaching in the U.S. invites few students into the richness of thought, of learning, and ultimately of careers that mathematical understanding makes possible. We blunt our children’s possibilities nearly from the start, telling far too many of them at a very early age that math isn’t for them.

Sometimes those communications are explicit; often they’re embedded in decisions, by schools or districts, to put students on different tracks as early as third or fourth grade and teach them math that often limits how far they can go. Unbeknownst to the children or their families, these grouping decisions will decide the students’ academic progress until the end of high school and beyond. This is far too early to make choices for students that can affect the arc of their lives. It is an unconscionable waste of human potential.

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We then go on to make mathematics even less inviting with a singular progression of courses originally set out in the 1800s, in a time before computers, artificial intelligence or coding — and the jobs that go with them.

Even before the pandemic — which has slowed learning for so many — only about 40% of students in California were proficient in math. That means 60% of the state’s students are not meeting standards, making California one of the lowest-achieving states in the U.S., a country that is not keeping up with global competition. America ranked 37th in math in 2018, according to the Program for International Student Assessment, which measures how effectively countries are preparing students for the mathematical demands of the 21st century.

That’s why a committee of 20 educators from across California was appointed in 2019 to come up with a different approach to teaching math and update the state’s mathematics framework. I was one of five writers charged with articulating the ideas of this group.

More than 3,000 people — educators, parents, a range of professionals, STEM academics, and industry leaders, and more than 50 influential organizations such as the California Mathematics Council and the National Council for Teachers of Mathematics have voiced support for the guidelines. The framework is advisory; the power to make final decisions remains at the local level. A draft was released to the public a year ago February and thousands of public comments were reviewed.

The new framework has updated its advice on meeting the needs of students at different achievement levels, emphasizing that schools should neither slow down children already experiencing great success, nor put young children on a path to mathematical nowhere. This corrects an idea that had circulated widely — that the framework would hold back high-achieving students.

The framework also provides guidance on ways that could enable more of our children to fall in love with math and excel at it. It recommends teaching fewer isolated topics and more connected ideas, with students investigating, problem solving and reasoning, through tasks that engage them deeply.

It also offers more flexibility in high school courses, improving on the single valued path of the past, and aiming to increase student engagement and access so that many more students will pursue advanced courses such as calculus and other higher-level offerings.

One of the new courses set out in the framework for students in their junior and senior years is data science, a subject that students respond to, is valued by colleges and important for the future. Giving students more mathematical options, and encouraging more students to take high-level math courses, is critical in a time when jobs are blossoming in areas such as artificial intelligence, machine learning, information security, data analysis and software engineering.

This is a deeply personal topic for me. At my local public secondary school in England, my physics teacher told me I could not advance to higher levels of science since I was not capable of learning the content. He gave the same message to every girl in the class. My family fought back, and I ended up excelling in physics in school. My first assignment as a mathematics teacher in London was to teach 13-year-olds who had been assigned to the lower-level tracks. One girl from a low-income home understood the message of that tracking all too well. She caught me up short with the question, “Why should I bother?”

The question became our shared challenge. I gave her more difficult work so she could do well on the national mathematics exam. She passed that exam, which allowed her to train to become a sound engineer. She went on to found a prominent sound production company. Her career would not have been possible if she had only been allowed to do the work set out for her on the lower math track.

Both she and I had been told we were not good enough for the quantitative subjects we were studying — and it was not true for either of us. Too many students in California are given the same message — and it is one of the reasons the U.S. has relatively few students who are proficient in math. California’s new math framework will help us do better.

Jo Boaler is a professor of mathematics education at Stanford University.


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