The following letter expresses “alarm” at the dumbing-down of math standards, with particular reference to a new initiative in California that offers students a pathway to high school graduation without learning algebra, calculus, and logical reasoning. Without these skills, 746 (as of today) math educators argue, American middle and high schools are “kicking the can down the road,” “reducing access to advanced mathematics and elevating trendy but shallow courses over foundational skills,” and causing “lasting damage to STEM education in the country.” These initiatives “exacerbate inequality by diminishing access to the skills needed for social mobility.”
It’s worth noting here that the New Jersey Department of Education just proposed a new high school graduation test that hands out diplomas to students who fail to score “meets expectations” in algebra. (Well, Gov. Murphy did say he “wanted to make New Jersey the California of the East Coast,” right?)
Here’s the letter:
We write to express our alarm over recent trends in K-12 mathematics education in the United States. All of us have first-hand experience of the role that clear mathematical thinking has played in advancing information technology and American economic competitiveness. We all also share the urgent concern that the benefits of a robust mathematical education, and the career opportunities it opens up, should be shared more widely between students of all backgrounds, regardless of race, gender, and economic status. We fully agree that mathematics education “should not be a gatekeeper but a launchpad.”
However, we are deeply concerned about the unintended consequences of recent well-intentioned approaches to reform mathematics education, particularly the California Mathematics Framework (CMF). Such frameworks aim to reduce achievement gaps by limiting the availability of advanced mathematical courses to middle schoolers and beginning high schoolers. While such reforms superficially seem “successful” at reducing disparities at the high school level, they are merely “kicking the can” to college. While it is possible to succeed in STEM at college without taking advanced courses in high school, it is more challenging. College students who need to spend their early years taking introductory math courses may require more time to graduate. They may need to give up other opportunities and are more likely to struggle academically. Such a reform would disadvantage K-12 public school students in the United States compared with their international and private-school peers. It may lead to a de facto privatization of advanced mathematics K-12 education and disproportionately harm students with fewer resources.
Another deeply worrisome trend is devaluing essential mathematical tools such as calculus and algebra in favor of seemingly more modern “data science.” As STEM professionals and educators we should be sympathetic to this approach, and yet, we reject it wholeheartedly. The ability to gather and analyze massive amounts of data is indeed transforming our society. But “data science” – computer science, statistics, and artificial intelligence- is built on the foundations of algebra, calculus, and logical thinking. While these mathematical fields are centuries old and sometimes more, they are arguably even more critical for today’s grand challenges than in the Sputnik era.
We call on national, state, and local governments to involve college-level STEM educators and STEM professionals in the design of K-12 mathematics and science education curriculum, set the following as explicit goals, and allocate resources to help school districts meet these goals:
1. All students, regardless of background, have access to a math curriculum with precision and rigor, and that would enable them to pursue STEM degrees and careers if they so choose.
2. Far from being deliberately held back, all students should have the opportunity to be nurtured and challenged to fulfill their potential. This is not only for their own benefit but also for society and the nation’s economic competitiveness.
3. There cannot be a “one size fits all” approach to K-12 mathematical education. Students should be offered multiple pathways and timelines to explore mathematics. But one of these pathways should be the option to obtain the fundamental preparation for college-level STEM, including algebra, calculus, and logical reasoning. Students should have the opportunity to take those classes at varying grade levels of middle and high school when they are ready, so that they acquire the tools to explore other STEM options and can build their proficiency in a balanced pacing, avoiding irresponsible compression late in high school.
Mathematical education is a challenging enterprise, and we have the utmost respect for our K-12 colleagues who are doing this hard work. In appreciation of the difficulty, we believe that changes to educational standards should be approached with care, using incremental experimentation building on lessons learned from both the US and abroad and using credible measures of success. In contrast, initiatives like the CMF propose drastic changes based on scant and inconclusive evidence. Subjecting the children of our largest state to such an experiment is the height of irresponsibility.
Finally, K-12 math curriculum development cannot be disconnected from one of its most important end goals: Preparing students for success in college-level STEM education and a STEM career. As educators in public and private institutions, and working professionals in the technology industry, we have a first-hand understanding of the skills needed for this goal. While the US K-12 system has much to improve, the current trends will instead take us further back. Reducing access to advanced mathematics and elevating trendy but shallow courses over foundational skills would cause lasting damage to STEM education in the country and exacerbate inequality by diminishing access to the skills needed for social mobility.