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Op-Ed: California’s math education needs an update, but not the one proposed

A student's hand writes math work in a notebook next to a calculator
A 12th grade student in Los Angeles completes work in a class to prepare for college math and statistics.
(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

California students’ math scores have lagged for years and only gotten worse during the pandemic.

The California State Board of Education has the job of adopting K-12 curriculum frameworks in accordance with state education code, which calls for “broad minimum standards and guidelines for educational programs.” The last math curriculum framework was adopted in 2013. Now the latest effort to rewrite the framework, close the learning gap between student groups and prepare more underrepresented minority students for STEM careers could end up having the opposite effect by reducing access to rigorous courses needed to succeed in science and engineering fields.

Our brains are not hard-wired for math, but mathematical concepts are often taught as if they are self-evident.

Right now, the state’s Board of Education is considering adopting an advisory K-12 California Math Framework, with public comment on the proposal open until May 16. Finding a way to improve math performance is critical. However, the framework’s authors are wrong to suggest that the achievements of computing and wider access to data have made some advanced math courses irrelevant.

This rationale is no more valid than saying that grammar- and spell-checking tools have eliminated the need for students to learn how to write. If anything, the pervasiveness of computers means that we should focus more on mathematical reasoning, not less. As science and engineering educators, we have seen firsthand how students lacking a strong foundation in math struggle to learn both data science and engineering at the college level.

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The proposed framework prioritizes providing students with multiple pathways in their math education and the option to choose their courses. But the efficacy of this approach is not supported by data and reflects a poor understanding of how fundamental math skills build on one another. The proposed choose-your-own-adventure approach to math pathways for high school juniors and seniors is fundamentally flawed.

Students with significant learning gaps in a topic will have difficulty succeeding in more advanced courses that assume mastery of that topic. You can’t succeed in a college calculus or statistics course, for example, if you didn’t explore logarithms or exponential functions during high school.

California’s proposed new math framework could lead to more children engaging with the subject — and excelling at it.

This proposed framework also favors allowing students to choose data science, which might appear more inviting, in lieu of advanced algebra and precalculus courses that are designed to prepare them for college-level math courses. This sets up a false trade-off between content and vibrant teaching. The result would be students missing out on math courses necessary to succeed in STEM programs in college and beyond.

These flaws in the proposal have prompted more than 2,000 STEM professionals and academics — including many in the field of data science — across the country to sign open letters raising concerns about the California Math Framework. The signatories include seven Nobel Prize winners, five Fields medalists and three Turing Award winners, as well as more than 200 professors from the University of California system, USC and Stanford University. Their concerns should be addressed.

Even if approved by the state board, the new framework would not be mandatory. But public school districts have traditionally adopted the state’s recommendations. Low-resourced districts, which typically have higher percentages of students of color, are least equipped to develop their own approach. Demographic differences between districts that do or do not adopt the new framework could further widen racial disparities in college-level mathematics courses. They will also jeopardize recent (if modest) national gains in the diversity of students enrolled in STEM programs. Since STEM careers are typically well-paid and in growing fields, the framework would increase inequality, with long-lasting social impacts.

Critics say California’s proposed math framework waters down content in pursuit of equity. Defenders say social awareness will accelerate learning.

Families with means can find workarounds — such as private instruction and summer school — to ensure their children learn the skills that the new framework encourages students to skip. This misguided proposal would, therefore, have the greatest impact on students with the fewest resources.

A better solution is for California to work with textbook publishers on improving content to engage and motivate students, and to increase accountability in our educational system to ensure that students have access to advanced math courses — and actually learn in them. Teachers also need new professional development opportunities training them to educate diverse students across the state who will need advanced math skills to succeed in STEM careers.

With more than 10% of the country’s population living in California, it is imperative to get math education right and not rush a decision that could jeopardize student success and the future STEM workforce. The proposed framework simply won’t prepare all students to develop the skills they’ll need — nor will it allow California to grow the talent needed to remain a global economic engine.

Jennifer Chayes is associate provost for UC Berkeley’s Division of Computing, Data Science, and Society. Tsu-Jae King Liu is dean of UC Berkeley’s College of Engineering. They are both professors in the department of electrical engineering and computer sciences.


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