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California's Controversial Math Framework: Prioritizing Social Justice over Mathematical Proficiency?

AP Photo/Ron Harris

The California State Board of Education has approved a new math framework that emphasizes “meaning-making,” social justice, and inquiry-based learning. The framework aims to prioritize problem-solving and the application of math in real-world contexts. It also encourages teachers to make math culturally relevant, especially for non-white students.

The core themes of the framework include inquiry-based instruction, equity and cultural responsiveness, high school course sequencing, and data science.

Critics argue that the framework lacks evidence to support its instructional choices and raises concerns about politicizing the subject:

The California State Board of Education voted to adopt a new—and much-debated—math framework on Wednesday, concluding a years-long process that involved three drafts, prompted hundreds of suggested revisions, and reignited decades-old arguments over the purpose of math education and the meaning of equity.

The 1,000-page framework aims to put meaning-making at the center of the math classroom, promoting a focus on problem-solving and applying math knowledge to real-world situations. It also encourages teachers to make math culturally relevant and accessible for all students, especially students of color who have been traditionally marginalized in the subject.

“The United States has not been teaching math effectively or equitably. We are one of the lower-achieving countries … and California is below the national average in its achievement in mathematics,” said Linda Darling-Hammond, the president of the California State Board of Education, during the board’s meeting on Wednesday. “This is an area of great need, and change is imperative. The same old, same old will not get us to a new place.”

Others take issue with the fact that it infuses left-wing politics into mathematics:

The California framework encourages teachers in this work on two fronts. First, the collaborative, inquiry-based approach is meant to support students from all backgrounds to find a sense of belonging in math classrooms and to engage their participation in meaningful conversations about math. Second, math content itself can help students use math to examine inequities and address important issues in their lives and communities.

Such an orientation toward social justice has faced sharp criticism from some members of the math community. In an open letter in 2021, over a thousand signatories—many of them math and science professors and business professionals—outlined pieces of a prior draft of the framework that they said would politicize the subject in a “potentially disastrous way.”

While some of these aspects have since been revised, the focus on social justice remains throughout the document.

Some support the program because it introduces different methods to encourage reasoning in a way that reinforces how one might need math in their lives when they become adults.

Mathematics, often considered a universal language, is a subject that should be taught with a focus on developing critical thinking skills, problem-solving abilities, and logical reasoning. However, recent attempts to infuse political and social justice issues into math education have raised concerns about the potential indoctrination of young minds. While addressing real-world applications of math is important, it is essential to maintain the integrity of mathematical education and prioritize the development of mathematical proficiency.

Mathematics is a discipline based on logical principles, objective reasoning, and universal truths. Its concepts and theories transcend political ideologies, cultural biases, and personal perspectives. By diluting mathematical instruction with political agendas, there is a risk of undermining the core essence of the subject and distorting the fundamental principles it is built upon.

Moreover, it seems clear that those of the progressive persuasion view this as another opportunity to indoctrinate the youth into their ideology. By infusing mathematics with hard leftist ideas, it is easier to influence them, which is the ultimate objective. To them, it is more important to turn out a new generation of Marxist activists than to make sure they know how to add, subtract, divide, and all that other boring fun stuff.

The primary goal of math education should be to equip students with a solid foundation in mathematical proficiency. This includes numeracy skills, critical thinking, problem-solving abilities, and logical reasoning. Students must learn to approach mathematical problems objectively and analytically, rather than through the lens of personal or political beliefs. By emphasizing proficiency, we empower students to succeed in various academic and professional domains, where mathematical skills are essential.

Injecting political and social justice issues into math classrooms means indoctrinating students with specific ideologies rather than fostering independent and critical thinking. The role of education is to empower students to form their own opinions based on evidence, reasoning, and diverse perspectives. Teaching math as a platform for promoting political beliefs risks narrowing students’ understanding of the subject and limiting their ability to think independently. Unfortunately, some on the left view math only as another way to influence young minds.

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