New Math Policies Would Hurt Gifted Students

May 26, 2021 Updated: May 26, 2021

Commentary

Perhaps Alan Erisman, who headed a team of applied mathematicians at Boeing, sums up the education of numbers best.

Erisman, author of the upcoming book “The Math Myth,” says, “If we taught English the way we teach math, students would spend all their time doing spelling tests and diagramming sentences but never read a great book or ever read poetry.”

That seems to be one of the issues the California’s Instructional Quality Commission is seeking to address as it updates its list of suggestions to math instructors. It’s seeking to determine how to help students reach the math standards established by the state.

Williamson Evers, former U.S. assistant secretary of education for planning, evaluation, and policy development, said the commission may have overstepped its original position. Evers, now a senior fellow at the Oakland, California-based Independent Institute, wrote an opinion piece about the matter to expose the issue.

In his Wall Street Journal article, Evers said the new framework would no longer aim to have students learn algebra by Grade 8, which is necessary for students to get to calculus by Grade 12 and satisfy a basic requirement of many selective colleges.

The original proposed framework also rejected the idea of tracking, whereby students are grouped according to mathematical skill. Tracking has proved to be beneficial, especially for high-achieving students.

Perhaps most damning of all, the original proposal called eight times for the state to follow the suggestions of the Pathway to Equitable Math Instruction: Resources and Guidance to support Black, LatinX, and Multilingual Students to thrive in grades 6-8.

That document originally stated: “The concept of mathematics being purely objective is unequivocally false,” and that “Upholding the idea that there are always right and wrong answers perpetuates ‘objectivity.’”

In a later conversation with The Epoch Times, Evers said that the guidelines as originally promulgated were “not fair to California students” and “would deny them the opportunity to flourish according to their special talent.”

Indeed, he said, “it is very destructive to people with special gifts in math.”

Since the time of Evers’s op-ed piece, the framework no longer calls for the use of that so-called “pathway” document, and the document itself no longer attacks the idea of objectivity.

Francis Su, author of the book Mathematics for Human Flourishing and math instructor at Harvey-Mudd college in Claremont, California, agrees with Erisman.

He said many teachers focus too much on just rote memorization rather than helping students see all the ways math gets applied in the real world. He noted that one of the things the new proposed framework gets right is that there is not just one way to solve a problem and that as long as students get to the correct answer, teachers should not necessarily temper the creative thinking of those who can get to the correct answer using a method other than the one prescribed.

There is in math instruction the concept of “standard algorithms,” which some might call the “right” way to solve a problem but which could be more correctly termed the “standard” way of solving that particular kind of equation.

Standard algorithms are taught because they’re the most succinct way to get to a solution.

And one of the many goals of math instruction is to help students develop as many standard algorithms as possible so that when they encounter a new math problem in real life, they have a large set of mathematical tools to draw from to solve the problem.

Math professor Su is quick to note that whether balancing a checkbook, calculating how much seed to buy for a lawn, or trying to get the next spacecraft to Mars, people use math every day.

He told The Epoch Times that proponents of tracking are usually focused on the high achievers and not wanting them to be held back.

The proponents want those high-achieving students to thrive and have all the opportunities to which their proclivities for math might take them.

On the other hand, opponents of tracking are often focused on students in the lower tracks and are focused more on social justice or concerns for the poor.

People are often surprised to learn that students in the lower tracks often get the most inexperienced teachers and are often taught with the worst methods in non-enriching environments.

In a speech he gave when he stepped down as head of the Mathematical Association of America, Su challenged his colleagues by asking how many of them actually want to teach lower-track students.

If done correctly, math instruction can be done in such a way that allows each student to achieve his or her highest and best level of success.

When The Epoch Times spoke to Evers, he said that if done incorrectly, “California public schools would risk losing their best math students to charter schools, parochial schools, and other private schools” that wouldn’t be hobbled by guidelines constraining the best in math education.

During the most recent comment period, some 1,200 letters were sent with about one-quarter opposed both to the use of the so-called “pathway” and to any reference of race in math instruction. As such, those references seem to have been removed.

After California’s Department of Education and the Instructional Quality Commission revise the recommendations, there will be another 60 day review period during June and July when the public can again make its comments known.

Tim Shaler is a professional investor and economist based in Southern California. He is a regular columnist for The Epoch Times, where he exclusively provides some of his original economic analysis.

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