Woke Math Education Reform Is Too Dangerous To Ignore | Opinion

More than 700 educators, engineers and scientists, including winners of the Turing Award in computing and Nobel laureates, have signed an open letter about the future of K-12 math education. They are alarmed by the dangerous trend of woke reform in public schools. Their letter warns this trend will negatively affect students and the U.S. economy in the long run.

The letter's signatories are especially concerned about the newly revised California Mathematics Framework (CMF), a document that aims to radically reform K-12 mathematics education in the name of equity. CMF is problematic in many respects, but what troubles educators and scientists most is its proposal to postpone Algebra I to 9th grade and encourage more students to take a less rigorous "data science" pathway for grades 9-12.

A U.S. Department of Education study found that the timing of Algebra I matters. Algebra I is a "gatekeeper" course, laying the foundation for students to take higher-level mathematics and science courses. Research confirms that "early access to Algebra has an effect beyond simple increased knowledge measures and, in fact, may 'socialize' a student into taking more mathematics, regulating access both to advanced coursework and increased achievement in high school." No wonder countries such as China and Singapore teach algebra as early as 6th grade. Those countries' students consistently outperform U.S. students in math.

Taking Algebra I at 8th grade or earlier allows students sufficient time to take more advanced mathematics courses later in high school. These courses are usually prerequisites for science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) majors in college and future careers in STEM fields. The latest data from the National Association of College and Employers shows that college graduates who majored in STEM earn much higher salaries than the national average earnings for all college graduates. Early access to Algebra I set many students on a path to financially rewarding careers.

One factor contributing to the achievement gap in math between white and black students and between white and Latino students has been a lack of advanced math classes in schools where minorities make up the majority of the student body. The U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights found in 2014 that "a quarter of our public high schools with the highest percentages of black and Latino students do not have any Algebra II courses." Research by Johns Hopkins University's School of Education concluded that offering challenging content such as Algebra I plays a vital role in closing achievement gaps between racial groups and would benefit low-income children in particular.

For more than a decade, California led the nation in both the offering and the enrollment of Algebra I classes for 8th graders—and achieved impressive results. By 2013, two-thirds of students took Algebra by 8th grade, up from only 16 percent in 1999. The achievement gaps between white and black students and between white and Latino students narrowed.

Los Angeles high school hallway
LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - APRIL 27: A hallway with social distance decal reminders are seen at Hollywood High School on April 27, 2021 in Los Angeles, California. Los Angeles Unified School District middle and high schools have reopened this week for in-person instruction. COVID-19 protocols in place include testing for all students and staff, vaccinations for all staff, and a completed daily health check for anyone arriving on campus. Rodin Eckenroth/Getty Images

The woke Left refuses to acknowledge this progress. Rather than continuing down a path with proven success at helping those who fall behind get better, the woke Left aims to limit the offering of rigorous math classes in the name of equity and replace them with less challenging curricula.

Scientists and STEM professionals are alarmed by such recommendations. They believe postponing Algebra I will widen achievement gaps because wealthy families have the resources to provide their children with early access to algebra classes, while students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds will have to wait for an entire school year. The delay means fewer minority and low-income students will be able to take advanced math classes later in high school. In turn, fewer will have the prerequisites to apply for STEM majors in college, and fewer will work in STEM fields.

Analysis by concerned scientists has also shown that the data science curriculum CMF proposed would provide "inadequate math preparation." What students will learn from these data science classes "are no replacement for the mathematical foundations required for students to pursue STEM in college."

San Francisco Unified School District has experimented with the ideas proposed by CMF for seven years. The result has been an "inequitable patchwork scheme of costly and hidden workarounds," according to Families for San Francisco's Seeyew Mo. "After seven years, the number of Black and brown students in the district reaching Algebra 2 by the end of 10th grade has declined, not risen." The district also saw a 13 percent decline in students enrolled in AP Calculus.

Venture capitalist Garry Tan predicted that if California goes ahead with the CMF's recommendations, "20 years from now...an entire Californian generation of STEM researchers, scientists and engineers, will have never existed."

Concerned that the rest of the nation may follow California's example, Harvard computer scientist Boaz Barak and Google research scientist Edith Cohen organized educators and scientists to send an open letter to the U.S. education establishment. They warned that "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." More Americans need to recognize the harm woke officials are doing to our education system and the urgent need to push back. We cannot afford to stay quiet and do nothing. Generations of Americans, our national competitiveness and even the country's long-term survival are at stake.

Helen Raleigh, CFA, is an American entrepreneur, writer and speaker. Helen is the author of Backlash: How China's Aggression Has Backfired and Confucius Never Said. Follow her on Twitter: @HRaleighspeaks and visit her website: www.helenraleighspeaks.com.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.