In summary

California students are among the nation’s lowest performers in math, prompting a controversial new framework adopted earlier this year. CalMatters contributor Julie Lynem reflected on her son’s algebra experience and how it shaped her views on the new guidelines.

Next year, my son will likely graduate high school without taking calculus, the most advanced math class offered.

Like many teens, he completed Algebra 1 as an eighth-grader, and while he earned a good grade, he didn’t fully grasp some of the fundamental concepts needed to enroll in geometry as a freshman. After a family discussion, we decided he would repeat Algebra 1 in ninth grade.

The reason: it’s better to boost his confidence in math by gaining mastery of the subject. 

It worked. He eventually earned an achievement award for being a top math student.

Still, we had this nagging feeling that he would now be at a disadvantage. With only four years of high school, it would be nearly impossible to catch up to his peers unless he doubled-up math courses. 

What if our kid, who prefers the humanities, suddenly wanted to major in a science, technology, engineering or math field? Most colleges don’t require calculus as a prerequisite, but if you’re considering a top university, there’s pressure to take the most challenging math courses.

Our family isn’t alone in feeling anxious and confused by the twists and turns of math education. After considering my own experiences with math – and witnessing the frustration of other parents – it’s clear that our state’s approach still needs work. 

California approved its latest K-12 mathematics framework in July, and it remains to be seen whether it will help our kids better compete and overcome significant gaps – deficits that were exacerbated by learning losses caused by remote school during the pandemic.

The U.S. is one of the lowest performing nations in the industrialized world in mathematics, and California ranks 38th in math among the 50 states and Washington, D.C., according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which tests proficiency in reading and math nationwide.

Last year, roughly 35% of California students met or exceeded math standards on the state’s latest Smarter Balanced assessment, according to the Department of Education. The learning disparities were most pronounced for Black, Latino, English learner and low-income students.

The question has been – and remains – whether the new framework has the right formula to finally turn things around for our math learners. Can it garner enough support and trust from parents and students – particularly those who are low-income – that schools and school districts can choose to adopt and implement the curriculum without a mandate? Will educators, many overwhelmed and even leaving the profession, embrace it if it means changing their instructional practices?

The revision, the first since 2013, supposedly balances providing math education that is accessible to all students – regardless of background, proficiency or language differences – with rigorous math instruction that gives children the skills they need. It aims to ensure students are represented and reflected in their math learning and understand the “big ideas,” emphasizing an inquiry-based approach that encourages kids to ask questions and make real-world connections.

The framework also highlights the importance of incorporating data science into math instruction.

Prior to its approval, which happened after intense debate and several revisions, critics argued that it failed to prioritize strong foundational math skills that build on one another. Moreover, it offered too many paths for high school juniors and seniors. The fear was that it might prevent some students, including those from marginalized communities, from advancing to higher-level math, and potentially shut out some students from pursuing STEM careers.

Supporters, including Stanford math education professor Jo Boaler, a framework co-author who had been under fire for her vocal advocacy, asserted that the current system’s hierarchical structure often pushed kids from marginalized communities out of higher-level math. Some students have been tracked in math too early in elementary and middle school, setting them either on a course to calculus or relegated to lower-level math. The revised framework, she argued, would not abandon complex math, but was designed to be inclusive and help more students take higher-level courses.

“Math has been taught as a set of rules and procedures, rather than helping kids use the math in real-world contexts so that students can say, ‘I deeply understand what I’m doing with this, and it’s giving me answers to things I care about.’”

Linda Darling-Hammond, president of the California State Board of Education

In the framework’s approved version, some students ready for an accelerated path will be assessed and then given opportunities to move up, receiving support if necessary. Those not quite ready are taught content from California’s Common Core standards in eighth grade, which is more in-depth than what was previously offered to students. 

In short, middle school students can still reach high school calculus without being on an accelerated track.

High school students have two pathways: traditional or integrated. With the integrated approach, which is common in high-achieving countries, students don’t follow a standard math sequence but rather different math subject areas on interwoven and connected tracks. 

After wading through the standards, I spoke with Linda Darling-Hammond, president of the California State Board of Education. She did not hold back in her assessment that the ways we’ve been teaching math haven’t worked, and remains optimistic that the revised framework will encourage greater achievement.

The idea, she said, is to build on where we’ve had success and create the kind of engagement and enthusiasm for math that is more relatable to students with different life experiences. 

“Math has been taught as a set of rules and procedures, rather than helping kids use the math in real-world contexts so that students can say, ‘I deeply understand what I’m doing with this, and it’s giving me answers to things I care about,’” Darling-Hammond said.

It’ll take at least a few years before we know whether the math framework that sparked so much controversy will live up to its promise. But as a parent, I believe we need to change our thinking about math education. We can’t keep using the same strategies and expecting our children to produce better results. We want our students to know their math facts, and we want them to be appropriately challenged. 

Without the right tools, they won’t be able to compete in a world that places a premium on advanced math skills.

At the same time, when I think back to my son’s decision to retake algebra in high school, I also recognize that not everyone must follow the same path. 

I asked my 16-year-old, now an algebra tutor, if he regretted repeating the class. He wouldn’t be the math student he is today had he not made that choice, he said. It was more important for him to have a solid grasp of the subject than join the race to take calculus. 

“Mom,” he said, “I didn’t think I could be good in math, but now I know that I am.” 

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Julie Lynem is a journalism lecturer at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and co-founder of R.A.C.E. Matters SLO County and RaiseUp SLO. Lynem is a veteran journalist who has been a reporter, columnist or editor...