California's Department of Education is working on a new framework for K-12 mathematics that discourages gifted students from enrolling in accelerated classes that study advanced concepts like calculus.
The draft of the framework is hundreds of pages long and covers a wide range of topics. But its overriding concern is inequity. The department is worried that too many students are sorted into different math tracks based on their natural abilities, which leads some to take calculus by their senior year of high school while others don't make it past basic algebra. The department's solution is to prohibit any sorting until high school, keeping gifted kids in the same classrooms as their less mathematically inclined peers until at least grade nine.
"The inequity of mathematics tracking in California can be undone through a coordinated approach in grades 6–12," reads a January 2021 draft of the framework. "In summary, middle-school students are best served in heterogeneous classes."
In fact, the framework concludes that calculus is overvalued, even for gifted students.
"The push to calculus in grade twelve is itself misguided," says the framework.
As evidence for this claim, the framework cites the fact that many students who take calculus end up having to retake it in college anyway. Of course, de-prioritizing instruction in high school calculus would not really solve this problem—and in fact would likely make it worse—but the department does not seem overly worried. The framework's overriding perspective is that teaching the tough stuff is college's problem: The K-12 system should concern itself with making every kid fall in love with math.
Broadly speaking, this entails making math as easy and un-math-like as possible. Math is really about language and culture and social justice, and no one is naturally better at it than anyone else, according to the framework.
"All students deserve powerful mathematics; we reject ideas of natural gifts and talents," reads a bulletpoint in chapter one of the framework. "The belief that 'I treat everyone the same' is insufficient: Active efforts in mathematics teaching are required in order to counter the cultural forces that have led to and continue to perpetuate current inequities."
The entire second chapter of the framework is about connecting math to social justice concepts like bias and racism: "Teachers can support discussions that center mathematical reasoning rather than issues of status and bias by intentionally defining what it means to do and learn mathematics together in ways that include and highlight the languages, identities, and practices of historically marginalized communities." Teachers should also think creatively about what math even entails: "To encourage truly equitable and engaging mathematics classrooms we need to broaden perceptions of mathematics beyond methods and answers so that students come to view mathematics as a connected, multi-dimensional subject that is about sense making and reasoning, to which they can contribute and belong."
This approach is very bad. Contrary to what this guidance seems to suggest, math is not the end-all and be-all—and it's certainly not something that all kids are equally capable of learning and enjoying. Some young people clearly excel at math, even at very early ages. Many schools offer advanced mathematics to a select group of students well before the high school level so that they can take calculus by their junior or senior year. It's done this way for a reason: The students who like math (usually a minority) should have the opportunity to move on as rapidly as possible.
For everyone else… well, advanced math just isn't that important. It would be preferable for schools to offer students more choices, and offer them as early as possible. Teens who are eager readers should be able to study literature instead of math; young people who aren't particularly adept at any academic discipline might pick up art, music, computers, or even trade skills. (Coding doesn't need to be mandatory, but it could be an option.)
The essence of good schooling is choice. Individual kids benefit from a wide range of possible educational options. Permitting them to diversify, specialize, and chart their own paths—with helpful input from the adults in their lives—is the course of action that recognizes vast differences in interest and ability. Holding back kids who are gifted at math isn't equitable: On the contrary, it's extremely unfair to everyone.
Yet the framework seems to reject the notion that some kids are more gifted than others. "An important goal of this framework is to replace ideas of innate mathematics 'talent' and 'giftedness' with the recognition that every student is on a growth pathway," it states. "There is no cutoff determining when one child is 'gifted' and another is not." But cutoffs are exactly what testing and grading systems produce, and it's absurdly naive to think there's nothing innate about such outcomes, given that intelligence is at least partly an inherited trait.
If California adopts this framework, which is currently under public review, the state will end up sabotaging its brightest students. The government should let kids opt out of math if it's not for them. Don't let the false idea that there's no such thing as a gifted student herald the end of advanced math entirely.