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STEM professionals and professors slam California’s proposed math framework

In an open letter already signed by nearly 1,000 technology professionals and college math and science professors, many from California,  warned that efforts to limit access to advanced math and promote “trendy but shallow courses over foundational skills” would cause lasting damage to education in science, technology, engineering and math (or STEM). It would also “exacerbate inequality” by narrowing access to high-income professions, the authors said.

The document, published Sunday, singled out proposed revisions to California’s K-12 math framework as embodying the problem.

The most controversial recommendation in the proposed California framework calls for offering uniform math instruction in middle school and waiting until ninth grade for Algebra I instruction. The extra time would prepare all students adequately for high school math. But that delay would hold back students ready for Algebra I in eighth grade and require high school students to add extra math courses in order to fit in advanced calculus, which is required for majoring in science, engineering and math in college.

“We are deeply concerned about the unintended consequences of recent well-intentioned approaches to reform mathematics education, particularly the California Mathematics Framework,” the letter said. “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.”

The letter also takes issue with the framework’s proponents, who argue that students interested in computer science and data science can take AP Statistics and computer science in lieu of calculus.

“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 letter said. “Data science is built on the foundations of algebra, calculus, and logical thinking,” it said, which “are arguably even more critical for today’s grand challenges than in the Sputnik era.”

Because of widespread debate and criticism of the framework, the timetable for adoption by the State Board of Education has been pushed back to July 2022.

The letter cautioned that any changes in educational standards should be done carefully and incrementally, based on lessons from other states and nations. In contrast, it said, California is proposing “drastic changes based on scant and inconclusive evidence. Subjecting the children of our largest state to such an experiment is the height of irresponsibility.”

Organizers of the letter include Edith Cohen, a research scientist at Google in Mountain View, and Jelani Nelson, an electrical engineering and computer sciences faculty member at UC Berkeley.