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California’s War on Math

The new California Mathematics Framework promises to minimize racial inequity at the expense of mathematical excellence—and the promise of the Golden State.

“California is America, only sooner” was an optimistic phrase once used to describe my home state. The Golden State promised a spirit of freedom, innovation, and experimentation that would spread across the nation. And at the heart of the state’s flourishing was a four-letter word: math.

Math made California prosper.

It’s most obvious in top universities like Stanford, Caltech, Berkeley, and UCLA. Those schools funneled great minds into California STEM enterprises like Silicon Valley, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and aeronautical engineering. Both the Central Valley and Hollywood—America’s main providers of food and fodder, respectively—rely upon engineering to mechanize production and optimize output. 

All of this has made California’s GDP $3.6 trillion—making it the fifth largest economy in the world as of last year.

But now “California is America, only sooner” is a warning, and not just because of the exodus of people and jobs and the decay of our major cities, but because of the state’s abandonment of math—which is to say its abandonment of excellence and, in a way, reality itself. 

Perhaps you’ve read the headlines about kooky San Francisco discarding algebra in the name of anti-racism. Now imagine that worldview adopted by the entire state.

On July 12, that’s what happened when California’s Board of Education, composed of eleven teachers, bureaucrats, professors—and a student—decided to approve the California Mathematics Framework

Technically, the CMF is just a series of recommendations. As a practical matter, it’s the new reality. School districts and textbook manufacturers are already adapting to the new standards.

Here are some of them:

  • Most students won’t learn algebra until high school. In the past, when that was expected of middle schoolers, the CMF tells us, “success for many students was undermined.” 

  • This means calculus will mostly be verboten, because students can’t take calculus “unless they have taken a high school algebra course or Mathematics I in middle school.”

  • “Detracking” (ending advanced courses) will be the law of the land until high school; students will be urged to “take the same rich mathematics courses in kindergarten through eighth grade.”

  • Lessons will foreground “equity” at the expense of teaching math basics like addition and subtraction. “Under the framework, the range of student backgrounds, learning differences, and perspectives, taken collectively, are seen as an instructional asset that can be used to launch and support all students in a deep and shared exploration of the same context and open task,” the CMF continues. It adds that “learning is not just a matter of gaining new knowledge—it is also about growth and identity development.”

  • Letter grades will be discouraged in favor of “standards-based assessments.” (It’s unclear what those are.) 

Never mind that before California lowered its standards, the United States already ranked far behind the best-performing countries in math—places like Singapore, China, Estonia, and Slovenia. All those countries teach high school students calculus and, in some cases, more advanced linear algebra. (If we’re really in the midst of a cold war with China, we sure aren’t acting like it.)

The California Board of Education thinks the CMF is exactly what’s needed. That’s because the board has a fundamentally different approach to education—and it’s important that all Californians, indeed, all Americans, understand that. 

The board’s overriding concern is not education or mathematical excellence, but minimizing racial inequity. Since a disproportionate number of white and Asian kids perform at the high end of the mathematics spectrum, and a disproportionate number of black and Latino children are at the bottom end, the board was left with two options: pull the bottom performers up, or push the top performers down. They did the easier thing.

In case anyone is wondering whether this works, whether it actually achieves greater racial equity, we need only look to San Francisco, which adopted CMF proposals like detracking before the CMF formally did. 

“I want to be very clear on one fact that is based in our data: our current approach to math in SFUSD is not working,” San Francisco Unified School District Superintendent Matt Wayne said. “That is a tragedy, because we want to do right by our students. And we’re not meeting our goals around math. And particularly our students, especially black and brown students, are not benefiting from the current way we do math in the district.”

I emailed Jo Boaler, a Stanford education professor, one of the CMF’s authors, and a co-founder of youcubed, a center at Stanford that has pioneered ideas about equity and math education that figure prominently in the plan. I wanted to know what I was missing. What Matt Wayne was missing. 

Boaler replied that she didn’t have much to say about the CMF and that she was a “small cog in the system that produced the framework.”

When I pressed her to see if she could offer any thoughts about the ideas behind the CMF—ideas she’s well versed in—she suggested I speak with “lead writer” Brian Lindaman, a math education professor at Chico State. Lindaman did not reply to my email.

Eventually, I did manage to speak with Kyndall Brown, the executive director of UCLA’s California Mathematics Project, which is charged with implementing the CMF.

I started by saying the CMF is clearly focused on racial inequity—noting, for example, that Chapter 2 is all about equity and that it’s shot through with mentions of racial “disparities” and “gaps” when it comes to “student outcomes.”

Brown, who, like other CMF supporters, believes those disparities are largely, if not entirely, the fault of racially or culturally insensitive teaching methods, replied simply: “Do you know how racist that sounds?”

When I asked him what, exactly, was racist about that, he replied: “What mathematicians of color did you learn about as a student? What female mathematicians did you learn about?” (He appeared to be alluding to medieval Arab contributions to the fields of algebra and number theory—which are fascinating and important when studying the history of ideas, but not obviously germane when teaching ninth graders about quadratic equations.)

The thing is, the CMF will exacerbate racial inequities. I went to a private school in Los Angeles filled with white and Asian students, and I know exactly how those kids—and definitely their parents—would react if they were told they could no longer take advanced math. They would enroll in rigorous programs outside school, like the Russian School of Mathematics, that would push them way beyond wherever their peers are. By the time college applications came along, the racial gap would be more like a yawning chasm.

I turned to Alan Schoenfeld, a Berkeley education professor who advised members of the Board of Education on the CMF, to see what he thought about this, and he said the same thing opponents of affirmative action have—that lower-performing students might perform better and develop greater confidence if they’re in a less rigorous environment. “Now some of them are going to turn out to enjoy mathematics, and they’re going to pursue mathematical careers,” Schoenfeld told me.

Ian Rowe, a CMF critic best known for founding several independent schools in the Bronx, said of the plan’s supporters: “They’ve embraced this ideology of oppressor-oppressed framework, where it’s assumed that black kids are these marginalized, oppressed human beings, and white kids are somehow the privileged oppressors. You see this all across the country, where expectations are being lowered in the name of equity by teachers and principals to somehow level the playing field.”

Let’s be clear: the CMF is racism pretending to be progressive, and all the fancy ed speak—about “frameworks” and “detracking” and “identity development”—can’t obscure as much. Indeed, the ideological gap is basically nonexistent between CMF supporters and reactionaries who once thought black and Latino kids were cognitively or culturally incapable of advanced mathematics. 

We should be blaring this from the rooftops and on our social media feeds, over and over—lest we lose the California Dream, a.k.a. the American Dream, which once made this place so special.

Julia Steinberg is an intern at The Free Press and a cycle editor at the Stanford Review. Her last piece was about the Wagner Group’s failed coup in Russia.

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