Should California De-Track Math?

The most populous state is considering big changes to math instruction.


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This is the Education Briefing, a weekly update on the most important news in U.S. education. Sign up here to get this newsletter in your inbox.

Today, we’re looking at California’s proposal to change math instruction, and a plan for a new university championed by conservative thinkers.

California rethinks math class


High school juniors and seniors in a precalculus class in San Francisco.Credit…Jim Wilson/The New York Times

The most populous U.S. state is discussing deep changes to its math instruction.

In an attempt to close the racial and socioeconomic disparities in achievement that persist at every level of math education, California has suggested an overhaul to the curriculum, my colleague Jacey Fortin reports.

A draft of proposed new guidelines rejected the idea of naturally gifted children, suggested de-emphasizing calculus in favor of data science or statistics and urged teachers to build connections to social justice in lesson plans.

The nonbinding recommendations also promoted something called “de-tracking,” which does not separate high achievers into advanced classes before high school. San Francisco tried a version of this already, with mixed results.

Almost immediately, the proposed guidelines drew scathing criticism. The draft is currently being revised and will reopen to public comments next spring or summer.

The battle centers on a fundamental question: What, or whom, is math for?

Critics said the framework would inject “woke” politics into a subject that is supposed to be practical and precise. They also argued that the plan would punish high achievers by limiting options for gifted programs.

“Math is math,” said Williamson Evers, a former official with the Education Department during the administration of George W. Bush. “Two plus two equals four.”

But proponents of changes point to a persistent racial gap in both math achievement and access to calculus, which has long been an informal gatekeeper for acceptance to selective colleges.

According to data from the civil rights office of the Education Department, Black students were underrepresented in calculus during the 2015-16 school year, while white and Asian students were overrepresented in high-level courses.

Under California’s current system, students who are not placed in accelerated courses by middle school may never have the opportunity to take calculus. And according to data from the Education Department, calculus is not even offered in most schools that serve large numbers of Black and Latino students.

“We cannot ration well-taught, thoughtful mathematics to only a few people,” said Linda Darling-Hammond, the president of California’s board of education. “We have to make it widely available. In that sense, I don’t disagree that it’s a social justice issue.”

More than 2,700 people wrote to share their opinions on this article. Here are a few interesting comments, edited for clarity and length:

“Public schools cannot leave 50 to 90 percent of the children behind!” a reader from Brooklyn wrote. “Largely white and Asian gifted-talented programs should make more parents squirm!”

“Shortly after SFUSD announced that they were eliminating algebra in the eighth grade and detracking, everyone I was done,” a parent wrote of the San Francisco school district. “Even my most stereotypically woke and progressive friends have had enough and are sending their kids to private schools.”

“I am a faculty member in the Princeton math department and a practitioner of some pretty advanced calculus,” a reader from Princeton, N.J., wrote. “Calculus is less useful and less ubiquitous than linear algebra and statistics in every STEM discipline. Calculus is fetishized as this glorious capstone subject for advanced students, but I really believe that this is a consequence of the historical structure of math education and not a well thought out policy.”

“Drawing examples from topics like racism, where mathematical arguments are used to show or reject disparities, could help inoculate the next generation against the kind of sophistry so often employed in political arguments nowadays, a socially valuable goal,” a California reader wrote. “De-tracking, however, is another matter, and I regard it as a terrible idea. True, everyone can get better at anything with practice, and disparities sometimes reflect unfair differences in privilege or opportunity, but that doesn’t mean some people aren’t innately gifted at math, as others are innately gifted at basketball or painting or music.”

A new type of university


“People are self-censoring and not having the kind of vivid discussions that used to be the hallmark of higher education,” the inaugural president of the University of Austin said.Credit…Stacy Sodolak for The New York Times

Some scholars and social commentators have long criticized universities for what they say is a censorious and illiberal climate. Now, a group of academics and thinkers have started a new one: the University of Austin.

The basic idea, its founders say, is to defend intellectual dissent.

“Many universities no longer have an incentive to create an environment where intellectual dissent is protected and fashionable opinions are scrutinized,” Pano Kanelos, the university’s inaugural president, wrote in the journalist Bari Weiss’s newsletter.

Several prominent iconoclasts, many of whom have been publicly criticized for past statements, are behind the project, which will be based in Austin, Texas.

They include Weiss, a former Times Opinion editor; Dorian Abbot, a geophysicist whose invitation to lecture at M.I.T. was rescinded over his statements on affirmative action; and Steven Pinker, a Harvard linguist and psychologist who has also weathered criticism.

“If they can succeed in their goal of truly being open to the diversity in thought and opinion that will be promoted, I’m all for it,” one reader commented on Anemona Hartocollis’s article.

The university has also attracted withering criticism. Many have argued that fears about the erosion of free speech often overlook historical and continuing racism.

Understand the Debate Over Critical Race Theory

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An expansive academic framework. Critical race theory, or C.R.T, argues that historical patterns of racism are ingrained in law and other modern institutions. The theory says that racism is a systemic problem, not only a matter of individual bigotry.

C.R.T. is not new. Derrick Bell, a pioneering legal scholar who died in 2011, spent decades exploring what it would mean to understand racism as a permanent feature of American life. He is often called the godfather of critical race theory, but the term was coined by Kimberle Crenshaw in the 1980s.

The theory has gained new prominence. After the protests born from the police killing of George Floyd, critical race theory resurfaced as part of a backlash among conservatives — including former President Trump — who began to use the term as a political weapon.

The current debate. Critics of C.R.T. argue that it accuses all white Americans of being racist and is being used to divide the country. But critical race theorists say they are mainly concerned with understanding the racial disparities that have persisted in institutions and systems.

A hot-button issue in schools. The debate has turned school boards into battlegrounds as some Republicans say the theory is invading classrooms. Education leaders, including the National School Boards Association, say that C.R.T. is not being taught in K-12 schools.

The school has raised $10 million in seed money in six weeks, Kanelos said, faster than the expected six months to a year. It is in the process of raising $250 million and is looking at several sites for the campus, he said, and is hiring “faculty fellows” who will help design the curriculum and teach in the summer program.

Next summer, it plans to offer “Forbidden Courses,” a noncredit program for undergraduates pitched as a discussion about “provocative questions that often lead to censorship or self-censorship.” It then plans to extend into master’s programs and, eventually, undergraduate courses.

Virus news

Elementary schools across the country are becoming centers for pediatric vaccinations. In New York City, some parents stood in line for more than four hours to vaccinate their children.

Gov. Tom Wolf of Pennsylvania said schools could end or modify student mask mandates in January.

Massachusetts districts have hired enough civilian school bus drivers to relieve National Guard members of their pickup and drop-off mission.

Chicago will close schools on Friday to encourage student vaccinations.

As failing grades skyrocket in Los Angeles and San Diego, California’s two biggest districts, teachers are changing how they evaluate student performance.

Here are a few resources about pediatric vaccines, including advice on how to get your child vaccinated, tips for calming down a needle-shy child and a list of frequently asked questions about weight and age.

What else we’re reading

Curriculum politics

Republicans have seized on school issues and “parental rights” as a strategy for the midterm elections next year.

School board members across the country face rising threats from angry parents inflamed by national debates.

New Mexico is in an uproar over a proposed curriculum in which kids discuss their racial identity. Some say it’s anti-racist; others say it promotes victimhood.

A new report by PEN America, a free expression group, says that bans on critical race theory threaten free speech.

From Opinion: “The reason education was such an incendiary issue in the Virginia governor’s race likely had less to do with critical race theory than with parent fury over the drawn-out nightmare of online school,” Michelle Goldberg argues.


Donna Heinel, a former athletic administrator at the University of Southern California, pleaded guilty in the college admissions scandal.

After an outcry, the University of Florida reversed course and announced that three professors could testify in a voting-rights lawsuit against the state.

For Prairie View A&M, a historically Black university, a $50 million donation will go a long way.

Students at Howard University, an H.B.C.U., are protesting against mold and mice in campus housing.

And the rest …

A task force in Kentucky is pushing for permanent financial support for full-day kindergarten classes.

The entire student body at one Pennsylvania high school has been barred from classmates’ club hockey games this season after some students yelled sexually explicit chants at the only female player on a visiting team.

Mental health: A school in Michigan is closing for two extra days before Thanksgiving to give students a mental health break. In San Diego, after parents criticized a similar measure, the district reversed course. And three districts in Tennessee are splitting more than $4.6 million in federal mental health program funding.

Tip: How to raise kind kids


Credit…Rachel Levit Ruiz

“Do unto others” is always a good start. But learning to be giving, especially in times when kindness is in short supply, can be a lifelong effort.

Traci Baxley, an associate professor of education at Florida Atlantic University, has written a new book, “Social Justice Parenting,” to help parents teach their children to empathize with and care for others.

My colleague Jane Brody, a longtime health and science reporter, wrote:

“Her book, which I found hard to put down, is replete with excellent examples and advice that can help parents raise children with a healthy self-image and regard for the welfare of others.”

That’s it for this briefing. Thanks for reading, and see you next week!

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