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HomeEducationEnding California’s math wars requires leadership from Sacramento

Ending California’s math wars requires leadership from Sacramento

Credit: Lillian Mongeau/EdSource

A high school calculus teacher helps her students at Glendale High School work through a tough word problem.

California is in the middle of a math war, and the conflict couldn’t come at a worse time.

With respect to student performance in math, signs of trouble have been evident for years, but the problem has gotten worse since the pandemic. On the 2022 statewide CAASPP/Smarter Balanced tests the percentage of students meeting or exceeding standards declined by 7 points in math from 40% to 33%. The results are even more dire for older children, with 29% of 8th graders and 27% of 11th graders meeting or exceeding standards. Beyond test scores, just 45% of the 2022 high school cohort completed the minimum requirements for entry into the UCs or CSUs.

And although the state has been pushing community colleges to eliminate remedial math courses that often result in students getting stuck and dropping out, it has not addressed the core problems: too many California students lack proficiency in math.

Of course, California is not alone in facing problems such as these. States all across the nation are struggling to improve student math performance and to close performance gaps between advantaged and disadvantaged student groups. But there is no question that California leaders could be doing more to help schools and districts improve math instruction and achievement.

Last year, the state considered implementing a new math framework that would have changed the kinds of courses students can take to meet graduation requirements. That attempt met with fierce opposition from opponents who claimed it would result in a watering down of math standards. The dispute between the two sides has resulted in a stalemate, prompting state officials to hold off on adopting new standards.

While the decision to postpone may have made sense politically, from an educational standpoint it is contributing to the problem. The delay is especially problematic in its trickle-down effects on curriculum materials. The state hasn’t adopted new mathematics materials since 2014, almost a decade ago. The last adoption took place just a few years after California adopted its current math standards, in the early days of Common Core, when the number of quality materials on the market was much more limited than today.

It’s also important to note that California’s adoption list is only advisory. The state has chosen not to require or even encourage districts to adopt high-quality materials. As a result of this hands-off approach, even a quick perusal of school report cards shows that California schools and districts have adopted a dizzying array of materials, many of them poorly rated by curriculum experts (if they’ve adopted any materials at all). This decentralized approach to curriculum also contributes to poor quality supports for implementation like misaligned assessments and weak professional learning, because it forces each district to figure these things out for themselves.

In the absence of clear standards and high-quality instructional materials, California’s 1000-plus school districts and charter schools are left with the task of figuring out what to do. This is burdensome for individual district leaders and teachers, and it results in too many kids having poor-quality materials to learn math.

We agree with the critics that watering down standards is unlikely to help move kids successfully through our K-12 system. However, the critics of the proposed math framework have not been helpful in addressing the bigger question of what should be done to improve math performance.

The only path through this mess is with leadership from the state. Both the California Department of Education and State Board of Education have a responsibility to provide a clear vision on what districts should do to offer a high-quality mathematics education, and they must stand behind it. If the state believes that its version of the framework will lead to better math education for California students, it should point to the research and move forward with the framework.

But the state can’t just stop at offering a framework, yet again leaving the work of interpretation and implementation to local leaders and educators who are already overwhelmed in addressing the needs of students post-Covid.

Supporting educators to implement the framework starts with adoption of quality curriculum materials, and California should follow other states in strengthening guidance for these materials. Ensuring every child has access to a standards-aligned material is not a blue state issue or a red state issue, it’s the bare minimum that a state can do to ensure opportunity for children.

It also eases the burden of standards implementation for teachers; teachers want quality materials, even if they may not want a script for teaching. But beyond quality curriculum materials, the state needs to develop a coherent strategy for supporting professional learning and assessments that reinforce the quality materials, rather than undermine them.

We understand that leading during periods of controversy is not easy, especially given the polarization across the country. However, we must try to make education a non-partisan issue, and we can begin doing this in math by relying on good research to inform policy decisions.

•••

Pedro Noguera is the Emory and Joyce Stoops Dean of the Rossier School of Education at USC. Morgan Polikoff is an Associate Professor of Education Policy at the Rossier School of Education at USC.

The opinions in this commentary are those of the author. If you would like to submit a commentary, please review our guidelines and contact us.

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