600 Top Scientists Oppose California’s New K–12 Math Framework

By Bill Pan
Bill Pan
Bill Pan
December 6, 2021 Updated: December 20, 2021

Nearly 600 scientists and educators have voiced opposition to California’s new K–12 mathematics framework, which deemphasizes advanced courses in an attempt to close achievement gaps between students from different racial or economic backgrounds, saying that it would only worsen the disparities it seeks to address.

“We write to express our alarm over recent trends in K–12 mathematics education in the United States,” reads an open letter signed by a growing list of 597 professionals in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields.

Among those who signed the letter are Fields medalists, Turing Award winners, members of the National Academy of Sciences, and faculty members of top U.S. universities. The signatories expressed particular concern about the proposed California Mathematics Framework (CMF), which they say is well-intentioned, but will harm students in the long run.

The CMF has been a source of controversy since a rewrite was first proposed in 2019. Following several revisions, the latest draft of CMF pushes Algebra 1 back to ninth grade, promotes “data science” as an alternative to calculus, instructs math teachers to apply “environmental and social justice” principles to their lessons, and encourages keeping all students together in the same math program until 11th grade. The framework’s designers say that it’s meant to help mitigate California’s achievement gaps for black, Hispanic, and low-income students.

The professionals doubt that it would achieve that aim.

“While such reforms superficially seem ‘successful’ at reducing disparities at the high school level, they are merely ‘kicking the can’ to college,” they argue in the letter, noting that STEM students who need to spend their early college years taking introductory math courses are more likely to struggle and fall behind peers with affluent families who are able to supplement their math education.

“Such a reform would disadvantage K–12 public school students in the United States compared with their international and private-school peers. It may lead to a de facto privatization of advanced mathematics K–12 education and disproportionately harm students with fewer resources.”

The signatories also question whether the “data science” education can actually work without students acquiring the mathematical fundamentals, including algebra, calculus, and logical reasoning.

“As STEM professionals and educators we should be sympathetic to this approach, and yet, we reject it wholeheartedly,” the letter reads.

In a call to action, the scientists ask that federal, state, and local governments add college-level STEM educators and professionals to the conversation when creating K–12 math and science curricula, which they say should focus on preparing students for success in college-level STEM education and a STEM career.

“While the U.S. K–12 system has much to improve, the current trends will instead take us further back,” the letter reads. “Reducing access to advanced mathematics and elevating trendy but shallow courses over foundational skills would cause lasting damage to STEM education in the country and exacerbate inequality by diminishing access to the skills needed for social mobility.”

The letter comes as California continues to find itself in the lowest 25 percent of all states and U.S. territories in terms of eighth-grade math, according to the latest results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a standardized test given every two years to see how fourth- and eighth-grade students across the nation are performing academically. In the most recent test in 2019, the average score of California’s eighth-graders was 276, which was five points lower than the national average.

Internationally, U.S. teenagers also lag behind their peers in Europe and East Asia in math, according to the latest results of the Program for International Student Assessment, a triennial exam taken by about 600,000 students from 79 countries in 2018. While the United States ranked eighth in reading and 11th in science, its math score put it at 37th in the world and 30th among 36 developed economies.

The letter’s leading signatories didn’t respond to requests for comment by press time.

Bill Pan