In 2014, the city of San Francisco decided to try to improve equity in math education by barring kids from taking algebra in 8th grade.

Noah Smith:

The results were highly disappointing — Black and Latino kids’ math skills did not improve, and the achievement gap widened, thanks to richer White and Asian families hiring private tutors to teach their kids algebra.

This incident — whose results are sad but entirely predictable — highlights how some Americans think we can increase equity in math education by simply teaching less math. But this doesn’t make the world more equal — rich kids have the private resources to learn on their own, while poor kids need the state to teach them. Paring back the role of the state is rarely a recipe for equity. 

But there’s probably a wider consequence of this type of shenanigan as well. At a time when America is desperately trying to re-shore strategic industries like semiconductors, we need a broad workforce with basic numeracyeven more than usual. The more we refuse to teach our kids math — not the well-prepared upper crust, but the broad middle of the distribution — the more we’ll be dependent on immigration to run the fabs. And while immigration is great, I don’t have infinite confidence in our government’s willingness to open the gates. We need to train our own people too.

Which means we need to get more serious about broad-based math education. A couple years ago, I wrote a post about why the fights over meritocracy vs. equity ignore the larger imperative of broad-based numeracy and technical competence. Here is that post, which I think is more relevant than ever.