California will spend about $128 billion on K–12 public education this fiscal year. This amount exceeds the entire budget of all states except New York and Texas and is roughly equal to the combined state budgets of Pennsylvania, Illinois, and Tennessee. The population of these states together is nearly 33 million, compared to California’s 39.2 million population.
Despite this level of spending, about 75 percent of California students lack proficiency in core subject areas based on federal education standards. To give you an idea of just how little California kids are learning, I note that only 27 percent of California eighth graders were able to correctly answer a problem that required them to determine that the halfway point on a line between the values of 0.8 and 1.4 is 1.1. And just 7 percent of these eighth graders could figure out how to connect two geometric shapes and identify the correct combined geometric shape out of six possible shapes. Sadly, this percentage rate for the correct answer is worse than blindly guessing, which would be expected to deliver the correct answer 16.7 percent of the time.
These statistics are for all students, including students of Asian descent, who perform at a much higher level than other demographic groups. Nowhere is the state’s failure to provide a quality education more apparent than among Hispanic and Black students, among whom only about 1 in 10 students is proficient in math. And because mathematics continuously builds on training provided in earlier grades, there is little chance that these failing eighth graders will ever catch up. This not only means that these kids will not be qualified for the many occupations requiring math fluency, ranging from accounting and auditing to engineering and other scientific fields, but they will also have a hard time reconciling their own financial accounts.
These facts reveal an educational system in crisis, one that has been present for decades. For years, California’s education system has created smokescreens and excuses to deflect attention from its deficient performance. Education leaders have often complained that a paucity of state education spending is the reason why kids aren’t learning more. Education unions make sure that teachers let parents know that schools are so poorly funded that they are buying classroom materials out of their own pockets. This strategy has been incredibly effective, even to the point that in 2016, nearly 64 percent of voters chose to extend the 2012 emergency tax increase—a rate of 13.3 percent on top personal incomes—to provide additional funding to schools, a tax that otherwise would have disappeared at the end of 2016.
Now that the state spends $128 billion per year on education, the “paucity of funding” argument has become less compelling, so education leaders are now blaming the state’s education curricula for poor learning outcomes. But these curricula were designed and implemented by the very same people who are now criticizing their own products. And this is not the first “blame the curriculum” rodeo. California has been changing its math curriculum since the 1990s, with each “new and improved” version hailed as the savior that will right our educational ship—only for it to be thrown under the bus when students continue to fail to learn.
Last week, California adopted yet another new math framework, this one exceeding 1,000 pages. Its vision is that Black and Hispanic kids cannot learn mathematics the same way as other children. The new framework imbues mathematics education with themes of social justice, power struggles between oppressors and the oppressed, and racial inequities within society. The new framework delays the introduction of some math topics, which will leave most students far behind in terms of what is required to achieve math fluency by the time they enter college or the workforce. A statement signed by nearly 6,000 STEM teachers and leaders objected to the new framework, noting that “it will have a significant adverse effect on gifted and advanced learners.”
Hispanic and Black students, and girls, are encouraged to take a watered-down “data science” course as an alternative to advanced mathematics. This is outrageous, particularly for a state that on paper is so committed to “equity.” There is no better way to perpetuate inequities than to give up on those whom we are failing to help to cover up the education system’s gross failures.
Stanford University mathematics professor Brian Conrad, who has received mathematics teaching awards, identified many significant, problematic aspects of the new framework. The framework cites many studies from the literature on mathematics education to support the curricular changes, but Conrad points out that many of these discussions are misleading or erroneous, even to the extent that several of the papers referenced draw conclusions that are the opposite of what is claimed by the authors of the new curriculum. In some areas, the 25-person team responsible for the framework simply did not understand the scientific material they were trying to use to support their recommendations. Perhaps the most egregious claim is that if teachers were to make one modest change in how they assessed students, then the US would become one of the leading five countries in the world in mathematics competency. Conrad noted there was no factual basis for such a claim, one that turns out to be preposterous.
What is missing from the state’s new framework is any recognition of the fact that the US and many other countries have successfully taught mathematics for hundreds of years. The primary reason why we are failing to teach mathematics today is not because we don’t know how to teach math. Rather it is because too many of today’s teachers simply do not know enough mathematics to teach it.
College students studying to become teachers tend to have some of the lowest math SAT scores among college students. An important reason why some foreign students perform at a much higher level than their US counterparts is that math classes in their countries are staffed by teachers who have advanced training in mathematics.
Many California teachers need to learn more math to teach math, but unfortunately the state has been moving in the opposite direction. The state no longer requires teachers to pass qualifying examinations to establish basic competency or subject-specific teaching competency. Can you imagine hiring a doctor, dentist, or other critical professional for your child who has not minimally established their professional qualifications? Well, that is what we have done for California’s teachers.
California Is failing students and their families and is abusing the taxpayers who are funding the state’s $128 billion education complex. More broadly, the politicians who receive support from the those who benefit from maintaining the failed education status quo are giving up on educating the students who are struggling the most, because improving outcomes won’t happen until we implement reforms that are opposed by teachers’ unions and other incumbent interests. Sadly, that will not happen until voters—the parents and taxpayers who are paying the enormous cost of this deficiency—choose to vote differently.