The recommendation in California’s proposed new framework for mathematics to develop new pathways for 11th- and 12th-grade students could result in reducing college and career options in STEM fields for historically underrepresented populations.
As professor emeritus and former mathematics chair at California State University Chico, I, together with my colleagues on the Academic Preparation and Education Programs Committee of the CSU Academic Senate, fear this effort at increasing enrollments in higher-level math classes could end up hurting the students it is intended to help.
Currently, the minimum requirement for freshman admissions to the University of California and the CSU systems is the completion of three years of college preparatory mathematics. The first three years are considered “foundational” and align with college and career readiness expectations of the California Common Core State Standards in mathematics. Traditional fourth-year advanced offerings include trigonometry, elementary functions, pre-calculus, mathematics analysis and coordinate geometry. Each of these fourth-year courses reinforce foundational mathematics and provide additional preparation for calculus. Many high schools also offer fifth-year Advanced Placement (AP) or International Baccalaureate (IB) courses such as calculus or statistics for which students can earn college credit.
Both the UC and CSU highly recommend students prepare for college by taking a fourth year of mathematics. There is widespread agreement in California that we need to expand access to and enrollment in advanced courses.
The proposal in the framework to develop new fourth- and fifth-year courses for 11th- and 12th-grade students is intended to expand this access by providing additional options such as data science, statistics or linear algebra that students could choose instead of pre-calculus or mathematics analysis.
But here lies the dilemma: These alternative math courses would not intentionally prepare students to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, when they reach college. White and Asian males are currently overrepresented in these fields, and my colleagues and I are convinced that these populations will continue to enroll at the current rates in the existing calculus preparation courses leading to STEM fields.
In contrast, underrepresented populations, including female, Latino and Black students, will be confronted with new options specifically intended to attract those who traditionally have not opted for advanced fouth-year courses. These new options can only subtract underrepresented students from the current calculus preparation courses. My colleagues and I fear the net result will be reductions of underrepresented students who successfully prepare for STEM fields.
This unintended consequence is avoidable.
The revised framework could minimize channeling students away from STEM by clearly articulating expectations that any new mathematics pathways be designed to inspire, motivate and prepare students for authentic access to the full spectrum of college-level quantitative work, including calculus. Advanced courses with a primary focus on areas like statistics, data science or discrete math must be designed to also reinforce and advance calculus preparation. It could make a world of difference if the new framework embraces this contextualization with clarity.
Other reforms emphasized throughout the framework don’t carry the same risk of channeling students away from STEM. These reforms — such as lesson design that requires active student engagement in connecting mathematics to real-world problems derived from lived experiences — carry far greater promise to encourage students to pursue additional mathematics study. Rather than diverting limited resources to develop new but potentially counter-productive courses and pathways, perhaps prioritizing the pedagogical reforms is the smarter move.
The need to debate the discriminatory aspects of new pathways derives from the central problem that too many high school seniors fail to take advanced math coursework. Authors of the framework hope that offering alternative fourth-year math options would be one way to attract more takers. But we must ensure that the advanced math courses we offer California’s high school students will truly prepare them to succeed in college and beyond.
Richard Ford is professor emeritus and former mathematics and statistics department chair at California State University Chico. He served as chair of the Academic Preparation and Education Programs Committee (APEP) of the Academic Senate of the CSU in 2021-2022.
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