Elevate Math Education. Leave Out the Social Policy

By Alex Chediak Published on September 5, 2021

Our worldview tends to bleed into everything we do. Many Americans, with the best of intentions, believe that a fair society is one where outcomes are equal. Across demographics, across disciplines, equality of outcome. It’s why United Airlines plans for half their 5,000 pilots trained in the next decade to be women and people of color.

Behind this view, there’s often an unstated assumption: That if outcomes are not equal, it’s because external forces in society are hindering one group or another from achieving their potential. Systemic racism. Sexist stereotypes. Unconscious bias.

California’s proposed Mathematics Curriculum Framework reads like it’s cut from that cloth. It calls for the elimination of accelerated classes and gifted programs for high-achieving students until the 11th grade. Why? Because differentiated programming causes student “fragility” and racial divisions.

A Social and Political Agenda

The 800-page Framework is filled with progressive bias. It calls on teachers to take a “justice-oriented perspective at any grade level, K–12.” It explicitly rejects the idea that math is a neutral discipline. It says, “the belief that ‘I treat everyone the same’ is insufficient: Active efforts in mathematics teaching are required in order to counter the cultural forces that have led to and continue to perpetuate current inequities.” That reads like a call to anti-racism, along the lines of Ibram X. Kendi, rather than the color-neutral goal sought by Martin Luther King.

The Framework calls on teachers to teachers insert “environmental and social justice” into the math curriculum. To develop students’ “sociopolitical consciousness.” To implement “trauma-informed pedagogy.” To assigning students tasks that will solve “problems that result in social inequalities.”

What about foundational math skills? The Framework rejects the goal of preparing students to take Algebra I in 8th grade, a goal that was explicit in the 1999 and 2006 Framework. This now-discarded goal has long been an international standard, and for good reason: mathematicians consider algebra to be foundational for all higher-level math. It’s also the best way to prepare students to complete at least a semester of calculus before graduating high school.

A Growth Mindset is Good

The proposed Framework invokes the value of a growth mindset to reject the idea of natural talent. It’s a silly blunder, but let’s start with celebrating the value of a growth mindset.

Have you ever heard someone say, “I’m just not good at math”? Maybe you’ve said it yourself. Particularly in a child, this attitude can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you’re convinced you’re bad at something — anything — you’re unlikely to get much better at it. Because you have a fixed mindset: You think your skill level is etched in stone, unable to grow. Nothing you can do about it.

It can work against a cocky student, too. Overconfidence — “I’m awesome at math!” — can lead to underperformance. If you think you’re better at something than you really are, you’re less likely to try, more likely to fail, and more likely to be surprised and disappointed at this outcome. Wasn’t supposed to happen! Because you’re “awesome at math.” Again, a fixed mindset.

The alternative is a growth mindset. “If I work hard, if I get help, I can improve.” It’s the belief that the brain is plastic, able to be strengthened — like a muscle — through consistent use. It’s a focus on the attitudes and behaviors that lead to higher performance over time. It’s hopeful, not in a pie-in-the-sky way, but in a deeply practical, motivating way.

Talent is a Real Thing

Good stuff, but here’s where the Framework goes wrong: They say the idea of “giftedness” is a result of “fixed notions about student ability” (page 9). It’s not. It’s apples and oranges.

The fixed vs. growth mindset concept comes from Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck. In a Zoom interview (reported by Richard Bernstein), Dweck explained, “Growth mindset is about the idea that abilities are not fixed, but rather can be developed, and developed not just by hard work, but by good strategies and mentoring. It’s not the idea that people are all the same, that they have the same abilities or that with application they can necessarily reach the same point.” (Emphasis mine.) She’s saying that a growth mindset doesn’t contradict the idea of talent.

As I’ve discussed elsewhere, think of talent as a multiplier. Practice (and a growth mindset!) will help you get better at anything: math, writing, tennis, playing the piano, whatever. But talent multiplies the effectiveness of your time-on-task. Where there’s less talent, the hard work won’t help as much. Me on the tennis court. Where there’s more talent, the hard work pays off in spades. Mozart behind a piano.

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Everyone benefits from a growth mindset, but talent is a real thing. Now talent can be latent, and late bloomers can surprise folks. We should be careful about projecting limited success for others based on limited experience with them. But all that said, the Disney cliché that “you can do anything you set your mind to” is simply false. The old Army slogan is better: “Be all that you can be.” Strive to reach your potential. Have a growth mindset in everything, but over time and with the help of others, discover your strengths — those things that come more naturally to you — and focus your time and effort there.

And if its math, why hold kids back from an accelerated class until the 11th grade?

The Race and Gender Issue

What about the argument that racial and gender inequalities exist in math tracking programs? The advance track, leading to calculus, is more male than female, and more Asian or white than black or brown. So let’s keep everyone in the same math classes — regardless of aptitude, interest, or effort — until the 11th grade.

One problem is that you’ll decrease the number of students taking calculus in high school. That means fewer qualified STEM majors going into college. Countries with strong STEM pipelines aren’t trying to mix social policy with math education.

Plus, truth be told, the wealthier students will just find a work around: private tutoring and AP tests. It’s the lower income students who will suffer from a more socialistic approach.

Any teacher who treats students differently based on race or gender should be removed. But let’s be careful about inferring such evils where they don’t exist. Teachers overwhelmingly want all their students to grow, learn, and excel, regardless of race or gender. If there’s any subject that should be free from politics, its math. As David Hilbert put it, “Mathematics knows no races or geographic boundaries; for mathematics, the cultural world is one country.”

Don’t Hold Students Back

K-12 math education should be engaging and dynamic, not dry, or dull. Teachers should foster a growth mindset in their students. Where possible, they should connect what they’re teaching to real-world applications. They should be warm, approachable, and affirming of every student.

Those who struggle should be offered help. After school programs, summer school, learning apps, and online videos. There are more educational tools today than ever before. A multi-track system need not be a life sentence: Students should be able to move up or down from year to year, based on various factors. Some need to repeat material. Others can work ahead in the summer and leap forward.

Choice and opportunity are essential. Students with greater aptitude and interest must be allowed and encouraged to take accelerated math classes. To do otherwise is unfair, unreasonable, undercuts motivation, lowers performance, and disproportionately hurts the poor and those from less educated families.

California educators who want to speak out against California’s proposed Mathematics Curriculum Framework are encouraged to sign this open letter. It’s a great letter to our governor, Dept of Education, and Instructional Quality Commission, asking them not to adopt the proposed Framework. They are collecting signatures from CA educators, like me. I’ve signed it.


Dr. 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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