California Adopts Harmful New Math Framework: An Expert Interview With Dr. Williamson Evers

By Alex Chediak Published on July 25, 2023

A couple years ago California proposed a new Mathematics Curriculum Framework. It urged teachers to take a “justice-oriented perspective at any grade level.” It rejected the idea that mathematics itself is a “neutral discipline.”

Over 1000 math and science teachers and professionals (myself included) signed an open letter expressing our concerns. But alas, this new framework was recently adopted. I’ve asked Dr. Williamson Evers, Senior Fellow at the Independent Institute, to answer a few questions about it.  

Alex Chediak: A couple weeks ago news broke that California adopted a controversial new math framework. What did they think was wrong with the old one?

Dr. Evers: California education officials have been concerned that achievement gaps have not been closed or closing in math. The achievement gaps between whites and Asians, on the one hand, and blacks and Latinos, on the other, have been a subject of research since at least the 1960s. But ever since California adopted the Common Core national curriculum-content standards in 2010, black and Latino performance have gone down further. Blacks and Latinos were notably improving under the tough love and Algebra I in 8th grade policies of Governors Pete Wilson (1991-1999) and Gray Davis (1999-2003). Today, tough love is gone. The policy has changed to Algebra I in 9th grade.

The other alleged deficiency was that the math curriculum framework did not fully endorse inquiry-based instruction and Big Ideas as the organizing principle of the curriculum.

Rather than organizing the curriculum and teaching around individual topics found in the normal step-by-step sequence found in the regular architecture of arithmetic, algebra I, geometry, algebra II, etc., the new framework encourages an “integrated pathway” that weaves in “big ideas” (like “relationships”) and organizes around them.  Teachers are pushed to use inquiry-based teaching and discovery-learning.

Alex Chediak: The new framework encourages inquiry-based instruction. Is that a good thing? It sounds more engaging than straight-up lecturing.

Dr. Evers: Teaching, according to the new framework, is supposed to be through “student investigations of intriguing, authentic problems.” The framework exclusively endorses inquiry-based instruction. But research on effective math instruction says that inquiry-based instruction doesn’t work well.

In the spring 2012 issue of American Educator, the magazine of the American Federation of Teachers, leading educational psychologists Richard E. Clark, Paul A. Kirschner, and John Sweller sum up “decades of research” that “clearly demonstrates” that for almost all students, “direct, explicit instruction” is “more effective” than inquiry-based teaching of math.

Clark, Kirschner, and Sweller say that after “a half century” of progressive educators advocating inquiry-based teaching of math, “no body of sound research” can be found that supports such teaching methods. Evidence from studies using random assignment or quasi-experimental design supports “full and explicit” instruction rather than an inquiry-based approach.

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Alex Chediak: I read that a prior draft of the framework recommended that all students take Algebra I in 9th grade. This was based on work in the San Francisco school district. Was this language modified in the final product? Do you have any concerns with the new course sequencing recommendations?

Dr. Evers: In 2015, San Francisco Unified changed over from placing all 8th graders, whether academically prepared or not, into algebra to placing none in algebra in 8th grade. Algebra I was mandatory for all in 9th grade. The framework points to the San Francisco experience as validating its own push for algebra in 9th. Unfortunately, Algebra I in 9th did not close achievement gaps and did not lead to more black and Latino students succeeding in advanced math. So, San Francisco district officials have publicly acknowledged that they are rethinking the policy – the policy which the framework relies on.

The San Francisco policy was, as Stanford math department’s Brian Conrad points out, “a total failure, exacerbating the very inequities it aimed to prevent.”

The new California framework discourages students taking Algebra I in 8th grade, a goal advocates of improved K-12 math performance in the United States have called for since the 1990s. Students in East Asian countries like South Korea, Taiwan, and Singapore learn introductory algebra in 8th grade or earlier.

At one time, California sought to have students learn Algebra I in 8th grade and made immense progress in this direction. California Department of Education data show that only 16% of students took algebra by 8th grade in 1999, yet by 2013, 67% — four times as many — were doing so. Success rates, meaning the percentage of students scoring “proficient” or above, kept rising even while enrollment was surging.

While student success tripled overall, African American students’ success rate jumped by a factor of five, and Latinos’ and low-income students’ by a factor of six.

Many selective colleges expect students to take calculus in high school. To get to calculus by senior year, students must proceed on a pathway of advanced courses. The new framework makes proceeding on such an advance pathway quite difficult, although the framework does now acknowledge that some students may be ready to take Algebra I in 8th grade.

Alex Chediak: In a nutshell, what is culturally responsive teaching? How prevalent is it in the education system?

Dr. Evers: Beginning in the 1980s, some professors in schools of education began to contend that teaching methods in the K–12 classroom needed to make use of and draw on cultural practices in students’ home communities. But for other professors, this was not enough.

These other professors claimed that culturally appropriate pedagogy sought to boost minority students’ performance so that they could merely take better posts in mainstream society. But according to these cultural-appropriateness-is-not-enough professors, mainstream society is unequal, racist, sexist, and capitalist, and schools merely reflect that society. These professors promoting a social justice agenda called for a K-12 classroom politics of social transformation, rather than teaching pure math or even including culturally appropriate contexts.

Research does not show that either culturally appropriate pedagogy or the more politically radical culturally responsive teaching improves student achievement. How prevalent they are in the education system is unknown. But they will be more prevalent under the new California math framework. 

Alex Chediak: Are other states seeking to make similar changes to their approach to math education? For example, Cambridge, Massachusetts middle schools no longer offer advanced math

Dr. Evers: Yes, counterproductive moves in math curriculum and teaching methods are already happening elsewhere. But California is an influential model, and other states are sure to follow California’s bad example in math instruction.

Alex Chediak: Is there anything else readers should know about this new framework? If they have concerns, how should those concerns most effectively be communicated?  

Dr. Evers: School districts are not technically required to follow the math framework. It is advisory. Local instructional supervisors may encourage teachers to follow it, but no one is going to hold a gun to teachers’ heads. Teachers should instead teach children according to the old 1999 California math framework, which is much, much better.

Alex Chediak: Thank you, Dr. Evers, for making yourself available to us.

 

Alex Chediak (Ph.D., U.C. Berkeley) is a professor and the author of Thriving at College (Tyndale House, 2011), a roadmap for how students can best navigate the challenges of their college years. His latest book is Beating the College Debt Trap. Learn more about him at www.alexchediak.com or follow him on Twitter (@chediak).

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