WU: California’s “Equity Math” Showdown

On July 12, after giving the public less than ten days to submit written comments, the California State Board of Education (SBE) voted to adopt the 2023 Mathematics Framework for California Public Schools, which will guide math instruction in the state’s nearly 1,000 public K–12 school districts. The controversial framework has received and continues to receive nationwide media attention as well as fierce criticism from STEM experts and concerned parents.

In a strange turn of events, the University of California Board of Admissions and Relations with Schools (BOARS) wrote to the SBE, requesting changes to the framework shortly before its adoption regarding its recommendation on data science as a math pathway. The BOARS wanted to clarify that the UC system does not recognize high school data science courses as an adequate substitute for Algebra II requirements.

Has woke math gone so far that the UC system, which prides itself as the beacon of progressivism in American higher education, cannot stand behind the new framework?

More importantly, the multi-year journey leading to the approval of a new math model in California—where, in 2022, the math proficiency rate stood at a dismal 33%—exposes a battle between differing visions of math education: between ideology and competency, and between elite-driven conformity and public consent.

Whether math instruction can blend open-ended inquiry with an “equitable pathway” is a contested subject of ongoing scholarly debate. For Stanford education professor Jo Boaler—an instrumental figure behind the new math framework—and her coauthors, making math more engaging means integrating traditionally separate classes by delaying Algebra 1 until ninth grade, asking open-ended questions, offering data science as an alternative to calculus, and using math to achieve social justice.

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Others say that these equity-focused recommendations essentially “de-mathematize” math. Brian Conrad, Stanford professor of mathematics and director of undergraduate studies in math, issued a nine-page critique of the framework, pinpointing “an enormous amount of citation misrepresentation” and “the abdication of quality control.” Education researcher and former Brookings Institution fellow Tom Loveless addresses two topics within the framework, basic facts and standard algorithms, to illustrate “how reformers have diverged from the state’s content standards, ignored the best research on teaching and learning, and relied on questionable research.”

UC Berkeley professor of electrical engineering and computer science Jelani Nelson has called out the blatant woke hypocrisy of the lead author and drafting process:

The proposed CA Math Framework states improving math learning for black students as central motivation and has 0 black authors. Instead, one author has alarmingly lucrative consulting deals with school districts with large minority populations, charging $5,000/hr.

This criticism has evoked strong reactions from proponents of equity math. Brian Lindamann, another coauthor of the framework, wants students to embrace math through “intersectionality,” such as by “understanding how cost-of-living works — that’s both mathematics and social justice.” Professor Boaler complains about being subjected to “harassment” and “academic bullying” in a world “dominated by white men.” Regarding Professor Nelson, who exposed her consulting rates and who happens to be of Ethiopian descent, Boaler threatened to call the police and pursue legal action. At the July 12 hearing, SBE President Linda Darling-Hammond even accused the opposition of “circulating misinformation” about the math framework because they have not read the materials “twice or three times.”

While the final version of the framework waters down the emphasis on “de-tracking” (i.e., eliminating advanced tracks so that every student in a given grade learns the same content), its replacement of rigor with so-called “big-picture math” remains intact. It discourages eighth graders from taking Algebra I, something the SBE denies. It recommends that “all students take the same rich mathematics courses in kindergarten through grade eight” (Chapter 10, Lines 808–810), while Algebra I is not listed for Grade 8 (Chapters 8 and 9). It is firmly grounded in equity ideology. For instance, Chapter 2, “Teaching for Equity and Engagement,” lays out the following five components of equitable math education: 1. Plan teaching around big ideas; 2. Use open, engaging tasks; 3. Teach toward social justice; 4. Invite student questions and conjectures; 5. Prioritize reasoning and justification.

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The words “social justice,” or some variation of the word “equity,” appear 188 times in the document—including in the titles of multiple sections. According to the authors, mathematics should be used to “both understand and impact the world.” Indeed, math teachers should recognize that “mathematics plays a role in the power structures and privileges that exist within our society and can support action and positive change.” Instead of using math to teach students to make logical sense of the world around them, the framework recommends “trauma-informed pedagogy” and encourages students to “take action” to “identify and combat inequities.”

But parents and the public are unconvinced. Representatives of Save Math, a grassroots network of parents, many of whom have backgrounds in math or other STEM fields, argue that holding back high achievers is essentially unjust and inequitable. To them, teaching math to accomplish equity and social justice does “a disservice to historically marginalized student groups by offering them a simplified version of math that fails to prepare them for the challenges of a career in science, tech, engineering or math.”

Two lawsuits have been filed against school districts that piloted the new math model. In March 2023, 50 people—including parents, grandparents, and community members—challenged a math placement sequence and validation testing policy in the San Francisco Unified School District. Implemented in the 2014–15 academic year, the policy started all ninth graders in algebra rather than allowing some eighth graders to take the course, a stance echoed in the 2023 math framework. Plaintiffs allege that the policy impedes less-privileged students and has no proven rate of success. Similarly, four parents in the neighboring Palo Alto Unified School District filed suit against a 2019 math program that improperly stops students, especially disadvantaged girls, from taking more advanced math classes. In February 2023, a judge ruled that the Palo Alto program does indeed violate the 2015 California Math Placement Act.

The statewide adoption of woke math will have national ramifications as other “California-wannabe” states and localities start to emulate it. But even in progressive California, the matter is far from settled, with academics and the public carrying on efforts to expose and challenge the deeply flawed framework. The battle is not lost.

Image: Adobe Stock

Wenyuan Wu

Wenyuan Wu is Executive Director of the Californians for Equal Rights Foundation. Twitter: @wu_wenyuan

4 thoughts on “WU: California’s “Equity Math” Showdown

  1. This dispute is essentially about holding back the math capable (disproportionately Asian and white) to produce “equity” with underperforming groups. I’m aghast at the equity proposal and all for helping the math capable go as far with their talent as they can.

    But it seems to me that the math capable advocates are lacking in any kind of program to try at least to satisfy the equity concerns. Do they have any ideas about how to close the achievement gaps? Do they not care, or do they just think it’s impossible?

    Just leaving a growing share of the population hopelessly behind is a terrible posture politically. Nor is it good for the society!

  2. I wonder, what is gained by mixing snark in with paragraphs 2 and 3 about the very welcome reaction of the UC system?

  3. Whatever can’t go on forever, won’t. Once the slime of “social justice” and “equity” and “intersectionality” infests high school math courses, you can expect shortly thereafter the incoming freshman into engineering majors will be predominantly foreign students. American high school graduates will not have the mathematical background to be successful.

    It is worth noting incoming freshmen in engineering disciplines are expected to take the calculus sequence beginning in the first term. Not algebra. Not geometry. Calculus. Other required courses, like physics, have at least one term of calculus as a pre-requisite. The longer one delays taking calculus, the longer the delay to take other required courses. You can forget about graduating in 4 years.

    No wonder the UC systems says “data science” is not a substitute for algebra II. They realize the long term consequences woke math will have on their STEM programs.

    1. Patti is exactly right. Worse still for Californians educated in state schools, those foreign students already dominating STEM fields (in Silicon Valley, when I was leading a school there a little over ten years ago, half of all CEOs were born in either China or India) have already completed single-variable calculus (differentiation and integration) before they enter UC, because it’s a requirement for admission to major courses in engineering sciences in all developed states, and even developing ones, outside of North America (indeed, a more limited familiarity with calculus is a requirement for all university students, whereas only around 13 per cent of Americans know this much mathematics). The Common Core mathematical standards that California uses are a failure in high school, and until the State Board that approved this framework is abolished, Californians remain well advised, wherever & whenever possible, to withdraw their children from such misgoverned schools and enrol them in private ones that give their children a chance to compete with Europeans and East Asians in this most important subject in the 21st century.

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