California Math Framework Creates Education Storm for the Nation
All storms have one thing in common: They leave destruction in their wake. The nation is bracing itself for a Category 5 education storm looming on the horizon — the proposed California Mathematics Framework.
This framework provides guidance for the math education of California’s roughly 6 million public school students. The proposed framework fails students in that it removes advancement opportunities and doesn’t teach students math. This is of nationwide concern because education storms starting in California travel across the country.
The first draft of the framework explicitly referenced the unsuccessful San Francisco Unified School District to support its recommendation of delaying “any students taking advanced classes in mathematics until after 10th grade” and moving the “algebra course from eighth to ninth grade.”
Currently, the SFUSD language remains, just reworded: “This framework recommends that all students take the same, rich mathematics courses in kindergarten through grade eight” and “a common ninth- and 10th-grade experience,” with algebra I in ninth grade.
This one-size-fits-all math program, regardless of student preparation and motivation, removes accelerated math pathways.
When my granddaughter was in middle school at SFUSD, while I was a full-time school site volunteer, I saw first-hand how this one-size-fits-all approach failed all students.
In the group learning sessions, the higher achieving students would do all the work, yet remain unchallenged in the academically slowed-down class, while other students who needed more support would fall further behind. I was so upset by what I witnessed that I paid for my granddaughter to take an algebra I class in the summer before entering ninth grade, to make certain that she was ready for the rigor of high school math.
An Open Letter on K-12 Mathematics explains how this one-size-fits-all approach fails students interested in careers in science, technology, engineering and math. The letter is signed by nearly 1,800 STEM professionals, mainly college professors, including multiple Nobel Prize, Fields Medal and Turing Award-winning scientists.
To put this in perspective, if you were a basketball coach and Lebron James, Larry Bird and Stephen Curry signed an open letter telling you that your coaching techniques were failing kids’ basketball careers — would you listen? Of course you would; but NOT the state board of education.
Instead of heeding these warnings, a framework author appears to trivialize this letter as “pushback” and celebrated “pushback” as a measure of success. Apparently, these few educators writing the framework know better what rigor is required for success in STEM fields than the STEM professionals who signed the letter!
The anti-acceleration sentiment remains in the current draft. Stanford mathematics professor and director of Undergraduate Studies Brian Conrad summarized in his extensive CMF Public Comment that the framework’s meager approach to supporting students hopeful for acceleration is “avoiding acceleration through wishful thinking.”
A saving grace might be that recent lawsuits describe how education codes make it illegal for districts to impose the framework’s recommendation, “a common ninth- and tenth-grade experience,” on students.
The CMF also fails struggling students needing more support.
Tom Loveless, former senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, points out in his public comment that the needs of “struggling students” are left to “wishful thinking.” He writes, “The framework’s ideological commitment to the principle that all students should be treated the same — same curriculum, same instruction — is the primary reason why the extensive literature on struggling students is ignored.”
Perhaps the framework’s most egregious aspect is that it doesn’t teach math. Curriculum frameworks are supposed to “provide guidance to educators, parents and publishers, to support implementing California content standards.”
For example, the existing 2013 California Math Framework devotes 66% of its text to implementing math content standards. However, the proposed CMF devotes only 6% of its text to this, and is full of mathematical examples that have “large amounts of space taken up in them by matters that have nothing to do with mathematics.”
Instead of math, the framework recommends teaching through “big ideas,” which include “authentic activities” on topics about which students “actually wonder.” This may sound appealing until realizing these “big ideas” are ill-defined and replace the learning of required math content.
What if students don’t “wonder” about fractions, multiplication tables or solving linear equations? Are they not taught? The learning of this material, foundational for success in high school math, cannot be left to a roll of the dice.
Possibly most disconcerting is the massive misrepresentation of citations the framework uses to justify its recommendations. A summary of the first draft concluded: “A review of much of the research cited, however, reveals that what the framework describes as ‘clear’ is often actually pretty murky, hotly disputed or contradicted by other research, misleadingly stretched to cover situations for which it was not intended, or, in some instances, just plain wrong.”
The current draft repeated this disregard for evidence-based recommendations. Conrad’s public comment states: “The abundance of false or misleading citations I found in the CMF calls into doubt the credibility of all citations to the literature in the CMF.”
He ominously concludes, “It becomes difficult to distinguish evidence-based guidance from ideology.” Unable to find evidence-based justification for their detrimental recommendations, the framework authors invented support.
With this framework, families with time and resources will find math education elsewhere, while families relying solely on public school will be left behind. Disparities and achievement gaps will continue. As warned, “It may lead to a de facto privatization of advanced mathematics K-12 education and disproportionately harm students with fewer resources.”
Although a few elected officials have spoken out in a congressional letter opposing the framework, by and large they’ve been silent, enabling the framework to continue through tacit compliance.
After a yearlong wait, we are weeks away from seeing the final draft. The nation needs to have eyes on this document, know its history and nip this framework in the bud before it’s approved. This storm will end, and we can determine how.
Rex Ridgeway is an African American grandfather of a rising sophomore at Abraham Lincoln High School in SFUSD, and a current board member of its Parent Teacher Student Association and School Site Council. He is also a retired interim chair of the Citizens’ Bond Oversight Committee.
David Margulies has a Ph.D. from UCSD in material science and is a former IBM research staff member. He has numerous publications in scientific journals and has co-authored 34 U.S. patents.
The authors of this op-ed can be reached by email.