California Educators Propose Math Change That Will Doom The Most Vulnerable Students

Tuesday, April 26, 2022

Parents of Hispanic and Black students need to revolt against the state’s education–labor union political machine, as the latest student achievement data show that many of their children have little chance of competing for a job that requires math or technical skills beyond basic arithmetic. Yes, it is that bad, it is getting worse over time, and chronic teaching failures within the public school system are a major reason why these kids are being left way behind.

Just how bad is it? The average eighth-grade Hispanic or Black student in California demonstrates mathematical competency that is below the fourth-grade level and just slightly above third-grade level. And if you are wondering the level of mathematical understanding expected of a third-grade student, it includes being able to perform and memorize simple multiplication (e.g., 2 x 11 = 22), and understanding the relationship between fractions that have the number “one” in the numerator, as in knowing that ½ is bigger than 1/3.   

This gross failure to educate our kids in mathematics, as well as in other technical and scientific fields, has been going on for decades. And for decades, more money has been thrown at the state’s public K–12 schools, which in turn have made a cornucopia of promises while implementing new, game-changing teaching methods and curricula that were virtually guaranteed to raise learning outcomes. Yet, time and again, all of these changes failed, leading more kids to fall behind, never catching up, doomed to an adult life with limited occupational choices, many of which pay poorly. No STEM careers, no finance careers, no accounting or auditing careers. No careers that require the ability to think logically and abstractly, both of which are by-products of mathematics training.

Einstein described insanity as the process of repeating the same action time and again and expecting a different result. It is time to stop the insanity in California’s public K–12 math education, time to stop accepting decades of excuses for teaching failures, and time to demand better performance and accountability. But if California educators get their way, math education will be watered down even more than it is now by eliminating Algebra II as a state requirement.

The state has proposed that students can take a “data science” course as a substitute for Algebra II. The sales pitch for this is that (1) students are failing algebra because of “outdated teaching methods” and “antiquated curricula,” and (2), learning “data science” will help students identify “truth from lies” on social media websites.

After failing to adequately provide a quality education for about the umpteenth time, the same education and political groups who have presided over decades of teaching failure are asking you to trust them. Again. But now, they are asking for your trust for the purpose of creating students who will be “informed consumers of social media,” who can identify “lies from truth.”  

Pause for a moment and think about what such a taxpayer-funded educational objective means for our children, and the agendas of those who would use these kids as pawns in political, cultural, and social controversies. This is a dangerous and disturbing idea, irrespective of one’s political leanings. This idea should never have seen the light of day, but instead it is a key argument supporting this curricular change. Is this how you want your tax dollars used? It seems that California’s Department of Education thinks you will be OK with the travesty of teaching kids the absolutely lowest level of statistics so that they can read social media the way the system wants them to.

There is an important, long-term loss that kids will suffer if they do not take Algebra II. Data science is in no way a reasonable substitute as a math class for algebra. Understanding the foundations of data science, which are statistics and probability, requires an understanding not only of algebra but also of calculus, which in turn requires algebra as a prerequisite. Should students be allowed to pass on algebra, then their chances of pursuing STEM careers become even slighter than they are today. And you know which kids will be shepherded over to the data science class, away from algebra.   

And what of the idea that kids are failing algebra because of “outdated teaching methods” and “antiquated curricula”? The idea that data science will be more accessible and fun for kids to learn has no basis in fact. Without understanding the deep principles of the mathematics behind data science, our students at best will be able to understand statistical data at only the most simplistic level, and at worst will make gross errors when trying to interpret data without having anything close to an adequate background in statistics, probability, and causal inference.

This is not to say that students shouldn’t learn about probability and statistics, and how to sensibly apply them. They should. Courses in biology and life sciences offer ample opportunities to do just this. Do you remember your own experiences in bio class, planting seeds in two groups, a control group and a treatment group that gets extra water or extra sunlight, and then testing whether time to germinate was different between the two groups? This type of “data science” is interesting and teaches valuable lessons. But it is not the “data science” that some want today in order to help students separate “lies from truth” on social media sites.

This proposal is actively opposed by 250 California STEM professors at four-year colleges and universities in California, representing all the UCs, the Cal States, Stanford, Cal Tech, USC, and others. Signatories of a letter explaining why the proposal is deficient and should not be pursued include professors in not only mathematics but also computer science, physics, electrical engineering, mechanical engineering, chemical engineering, software development, economics, medicine, chemistry, biology, materials science, astrophysics, planetary sciences, and many other fields, including professors in . . . data science departments.

If such a proposal were to be adopted, students will be at a substantial disadvantage for any STEM major. And being entirely candid, few who skip algebra in high school will realistically be able to pursue a technical major in college. They will simply be too far behind.

California’s latest math proposal effectively gives up on educating our most vulnerable kids. Armed with the math skills of only a primary school student, these students will face adulthood lacking the technical competency to qualify for many of the best jobs that society will create. This is soul crushing, not only for the at-risk students and their families, but for all of us.