California’s Math Misadventure Is About to Go National

Brian Conrad:

When I decided to read every word of California’s 1,000-page proposal to transform math education in public schools, I learned that even speculative and unproved ideas can end up as official instructional policy. In 2021, the state released a draft of the California Mathematics Framework, whose authors were promising to open up new pathways into science and tech careers for students who might otherwise be left behind. At the time, news reports highlighted features of the CMF that struck me as dubious. That draft explicitly promoted the San Francisco Unified School District’s policy of banishing Algebra I from middle school—a policy grounded in the belief that teaching the subject only in high school would give all students the same opportunities for future success. The document also made a broad presumption that tweaking the content and timing of the math curriculum, rather than more effective teaching of the existing one, was the best way to fix achievement gaps among demographic groups. Unfortunately, the sheer size of the sprawling document discouraged serious public scrutiny.

I am a professional mathematician, a graduate of the public schools of a middle-class community in New York, and the son of a high-school math teacher. I have been the director of undergraduate studies in math at Stanford University for a decade. When California released a revised draft of the math framework last year, I decided someone should read the whole thing, so I dove in. Sometimes, as I pored over the CMF, I could scarcely believe what I was reading. The document cited research that hadn’t been peer-reviewed; justified sweeping generalizations by referencing small, tightly focused studies or even unrelated research; and described some papers as reaching nearly the opposite conclusions from what they actually say.