Dumbing Down Public-School Math in the Name of Social Justice

May 20, 2021 Updated: May 25, 2021


In the interest of “math equity”—doing something about racial disparities in accelerated mathematics classes for gifted middle-school and high-school students—the state of California is considering simply doing away with public schools’ accelerated math track altogether.

The current system, which allows youngsters with demonstrated math proficiency to start algebra in the eighth grade and take calculus as high-school seniors, would be dismantled. Instead, according to recommendations in the California Department of Education’s “mathematics framework” for 2021, all students, whether mathematically gifted or years behind their peers, would be placed on a “common pathway” taking courses geared to middling math aptitude.

“Districts and schools must confront the structural inequities of tracking and ability grouping,” the recommendations read.

The framework cites statistics showing that 32 percent of California’s Asian American students have been in accelerated programs for the mathematically gifted, in contrast to 8 percent of whites, 4 percent of black students, and 3 percent of Latino students.

This represents a widespread trend. In late April, it was reported that Virginia’s Department of Education was considering eliminating all advanced math classes before the 11th grade, which would also effectively scotch calculus as a 12th-grade option. The department’s Virginia Mathematics Pathway Initiative cited a concept known as “heterogeneous learning”—keeping students of varying skill levels in the same classroom to learn at their individual paces—which would presumably eliminate the statistical overrepresentation of the white and the well-off (the department downplayed Asian representation) in gifted classes.

“Those that have been privileged by the current system must be willing to give up that privilege for more equitable schooling,” one position paper (pdf) from the National Council of Supervisors of Mathematics listed on the Virginia Department of Education website reads.

Oregon’s education department has similarly announced a “Math Project” declaring that “tracking often results in inequitable teaching and learning for students” (pdf). The Math Project recommends substituting “multidimensional” mathematics courses for students of all abilities emphasizing group classroom projects in which “all students can participate and find success, while also seeing that success in mathematics is not just getting an answer.”

Such recommendations—essentially dumbing down math classes across the board—might inspire many a parent of a child interested in a STEM career or admission to a competitive college to start looking for a private or charter school. Indeed, the parental furor in Virginia was so intense that state education officials hastily announced that there was no chance of their recommendations being implemented before the 2025–26 school year, and that even then, students would still be able to enroll in AP and IB advanced classes.

But the real problem is deeper: It’s the insistence by the educational and political establishment that all young people have equal mathematical ability, and that all that’s needed is some tinkering with their classroom experiences to produce equal math outcomes.

It’s a problem exacerbated by the now-nearly universal expectation that every young person goes to college and must receive a college-prep education in high school. Before the 1960s, that expectation didn’t exist. Only a minority of students, the college-bound minority, took algebra, the gateway course for higher math. The majority took “business math” or “general math,” shoring up basic calculation skills that would train them for jobs right out of high school. Now algebra, sometimes two years’ worth, is mandatory for high-school graduation in nearly every state in America. And as any English major who struggled with quadratic equations as a teenager can tell you, it doesn’t come easy to a lot of people, even very bright people who are clearly gifted in other areas.

It comes least easy of all to students who have never really learned basic arithmetic in grade school, whether because of their socially dysfunctional backgrounds or because their “Common Core” teachers had them filling in boxes with numbers instead of memorizing the multiplication tables.

Educators have devised numerous strategies for trying to wrest equal math outcomes out of young people of widely varying math abilities and preparation. One of the most recent has been “algebra for all”: putting all students, at least nominally, on the same calculus track that gifted students currently enjoy. In 2015, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced a plan for “equity and excellence” that would have all public-school students in New York taking algebra in the eighth grade by the year 2022.

Predictably, the result of such ambitious efforts in many school districts has been watered-down algebra: stretching out a year’s worth of the subject over two years or more, allowing students to rely on graphing calculators instead of solving word problems, and so forth.

But high school graduation and college-entrance rates haven’t budged, especially for the black and Latino youngsters who are often the least prepared. The National Assessment for Educational Progress reported that in 2019, some 40 percent of America’s 12th-graders scored below “basic” level on its standardized math test.

So now, still in its quest for math equity, the education establishment seems ready to swap this “no child left behind” strategy for an “every child left behind” strategy—lowered standards for all students. If such plans are implemented, the current exodus from public schools by those who can afford it, whether white, Asian, black, or Latino, is bound to accelerate.

The worst effect, however, will be the long-term effect on education itself. You might not “need” algebra or its next-step offshoot, calculus, to study Shakespeare or criminal justice, but a grasp of higher math, the sophisticated manipulation of abstract symbols, is essential for STEM training and for such related fields as economics and statistics.

Rather than dumbing down public-school math in the name of social justice, educators would better serve young people by recognizing that mathematical talent—like artistic talent and musical talent—isn’t equally distributed. Nor is it necessarily young people’s ability or desire to spend four years in college grappling with intellectual material when they might lead happier, more productive lives mastering a trade.

The education establishment would better serve them if it focused on grounding them in basic math skills that they can actually learn and use—while also encouraging their peers who are genuinely talented in math to soar.

Charlotte Allen is the executive editor of Catholic Arts Today and a frequent contributor to Quillette. She has a doctorate in medieval studies from the Catholic University of America.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.