'Teaching Toward Social Justice': California's New Math Framework Aims to Create 'Equitable Outcomes' Between Students

New guidelines abandon student performance tracking and aim to eliminate differences in 'school experiences'

An empty elementary school / Getty Images
July 14, 2023

California's new equity-focused math curriculum guidelines aim to narrow the gap between gifted and non-gifted learners—at a time when only a third of the state's students are proficient in the subject.

California’s State Board of Education last week approved its "2023 Mathematics Framework for California Public Schools," a move that reimagines how the subject is taught in the state. Rather than traditional computational fluency involving speed and accuracy, the new math teaching guidelines provide a vague framework of "teaching around big ideas" through student-led "inquiry." The guidelines also approach math concepts, such as algebra, "visually and through words" and abandon "student tracking" practices, which provide learners access to more advanced instruction. California hopes those policies will eliminate differences in "school experiences," such as accelerated versus non-accelerated course pathways, in pursuit of more "equitable student mathematics success."

The guideline changes come as California students struggle. Only a third of the state's students and 23 percent of its eighth graders are proficient in math, according to data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress. California is nonetheless abandoning a traditional framework that once brought growth in student math achievement, particularly among minorities and low-income students.

Williamson Evers, a senior fellow at the Independent Institute who shaped education policy in Republican presidential administrations, told the Washington Free Beacon that California educators’ "obsession" with race is hurting students. Those educators, Evers argued, should help "individual kids succeed through hard work and talent" but are instead holding accelerated learners back from taking more advanced instruction.

In addition to abandoning student performance tracking—which assesses whether a student should take more, or less, rigorous coursework—California's new math guidelines also reject the traditional pathway of preparing students to take Algebra I by eighth grade. That pathway "undermines" student success, according to the guidelines.

Instead of preparing students for Algebra I in eighth grade, the new guidelines recommend that most students wait until ninth grade to take it, effectively limiting students from reaching Calculus before graduating high school. Students who are highly proficient in math and wish to attend more selective colleges or universities typically need to pass Calculus in high school, which in most cases requires taking Algebra I in eighth grade. Under California’s new guidelines, however, a high-achieving student must enroll in summer school—or complete two years of math in a single academic calendar year—to reach Calculus before graduation. The guidelines also allow schools the possibility to compress Algebra I, Algebra II, and Pre-calculus to eliminate "redundancies," though the new math framework admits that "repetition" adds "value."

Between 1999 and 2013, when 67 percent of California students took Algebra I in the eighth grade, black and Latino students saw their rates of success jump five- and six-fold, respectively, according to research from Evers and the late Ze'ev Wurman, another Independent Institute fellow. Low-income students saw their achievement double. Evers and Wurman credited high expectations, as well as quality teaching methods and curriculum materials, for the increase. "It wasn’t perfection, every kid wasn’t getting an ‘A,'" Evers told the Free Beacon. "But they were doing very well."

The California Department of Education said its newly approved framework "does not limit Algebra I to ninth grade." But to discourage widespread enrollment in eighth-grade algebra, the framework’s diagram that lays out eighth grade course pathways omits algebra as an option. When the Free Beacon pressed the department about this, it admitted that it retroactively adopted "amendments" after the California State Board of Education approved the framework on July 12.

Besides amending the traditional Algebra I pathway, California’s math framework also promotes taking math-lite data science courses rather than the more rigorous Algebra II in high school, something hundreds of California university professors have argued will fail to adequately prepare students for college.

In addition to holding back higher-performing students, California’s new math curriculum guidelines push "teaching towards social justice," which the policy says begins with educator awareness that "mathematics plays a role in the power structures and privileges that exist within our society." The math curriculum guidelines argue that educators who are "committed to social justice work" will "equip students with a toolkit and mindset to identify and combat inequities with mathematics."

Evers argued in a memo last week that parents and taxpayers "want math to be taught sensibly," adding that it’s "a scientific reality that children need to learn math facts and standard algorithms." California’s massive student population, comprising of close to six million students, will influence practices around the rest of the country, Evers concluded.

Published under: California , DEI , Education