California’s math detracking initiative seems pretty misguided
Copy the better-performing states, don’t make up new stuff
California is considering adopting a new Mathematics Framework for its K-12 public schools. This has set off an incredible amount of controversy, including this open letter by a distinguished group of mathematicians, scientists, and technology leaders.
Pushback has been particularly strong from California’s influential tech community, and Rep. Ro Khanna (who represents Silicon Valley but is generally aligned with the left politically) has joined the backlash. The framework itself is incredibly long and includes a bunch of proposals, but at its core, the authors want to “detrack” California’s high school math classes — i.e., not separate students by math ability — and in order to accomplish this, they’re proposing delaying the introduction of algebra and possibly teaching statistics instead of calculus.
In practice, the guidelines are not binding. San Francisco is essentially already doing what the new framework proposes and will presumably continue to do so whether or not the state adopts it. Other districts will be free to continue with their current practice even if the new framework is picked up. In other words, it’s unclear to me what the actual stakes are in this debate.
But one big problem with this idea, as Kareem Carr noted, is you can’t really teach statistics properly without calculus, which I think goes to underscore that this is not really a debate about the proper sequencing of math classes. It’s instead another manifestation of the dysfunctional tendency in some edu-left circles to stigmatize all efforts at measurement. If you sort kids into different math tracks based on their test scores, that might reveal that Black and Latino kids are doing worse than white and Asian ones. If you refuse to sort, you can pretend you’ve achieved equality. But will you provide useful education?
Read Joe Hong’s article on the consequences of detracking in San Francisco and you eventually get to Lizzy Hull Barnes, who is in charge of San Francisco math education, saying it’s invalid to look at test outcomes to see whether kids are doing better or worse:
But Barnes said the number of students enrolling in higher level math is a more effective measure and that test score data “is not the measure we would use to evaluate impact.
“In high school they take the test one time in 11th grade,” she said. “It’s difficult to use that as a measurement for success in all of mathematics.”
[Morgan] Polikoff said that although standardized tests aren’t a perfect measure, the district can’t simply dismiss them, especially because they test exactly what students should have learned under the district’s policy change.
I 100% understand that lots of perfectly normal parents and students got test fatigue in the heyday of No Child Left Behind and that there is such a thing as too much assessment.
But the authors of the proposed framework are trying to push the state’s schools in a strange new direction with almost no valid research they can cite to indicate that it’s likely to work. It’s particularly egregious because while California schools do exhibit a racial achievement gap, their results are sub-par across the board. They should be trying to imitate other, better-performing states, not inventing a whole new way of doing high school math.
And I say that despite considerable sympathy for some of the skepticism of heavy reliance on tracking.
Some areas where I sympathize with detrackers
I feel like the policy conversation around tracking has moved with dizzying speed. Just a few years ago, I would’ve said that tracking is overrated in American education circles. I used to hear from a lot of people that the problem in American education was we don’t track aggressively enough, but a good paper by Eric Hanushek and Ludger Woßmann finds that aggressive early tracking systems increase inequality of outcomes while doing nothing to improve average outcomes.
But note that in their paper, the United States counts as a non-tracking system — they are critical of systems that track much earlier and more aggressively than American schools do (note that Hanushek is opposed to the California framework). My read of the evidence is also that selective exam schools are not actually beneficial to the students who attend them, and the people who worry that messing with the admissions criteria will ruin these schools are making an error.
I further think that a lot of the rhetoric around tracking in American schools is harmful and counterproductive. There is no good reason to label a subset of kids “gifted.” It is almost certainly true that for any given group of 13-year-olds, some of them will be more “gifted” at math than others. But what is definitely true is that some of them will know more math than others (David Card and Laura Giuliano specifically studied tracking based on IQ and tracking based on prior school performance, and found that the latter works better). And really, all you need to say to explain why you are sending some kids to one classroom and others to another is that kids with different levels of knowledge need to be taught different things. The key thing here is that overemphasis on natural ability detracts from schools’ ability to serve their actual purpose, which is teaching everyone to be better.
Miles Kimball and Noah Smith did a great column in 2013 about the evidence that telling people they are bad at math causes them to work less hard and learn less math. And an experiment by Lisa Blackwell, Kali Trzesniewski, and Carol Sorich Dweck found that if you tell 7th graders that intelligence is highly malleable through hard work, they then work harder, learn more, and get better grades.
So we should not be stigmatizing students with below-average math scores or embracing rhetoric that implies high math scores are a matter of innate gifts. There are practical reasons to sort students to an extent based on their level of prior accomplishment and demonstrated interest in a subject, but it’s not “Gattaca” where we’re trying to separate the valids from the invalid.
Finally, some of this discourse exhibits a troubling scarcity mentality, like we are hoarding our high-quality educational opportunities for a privileged minority of students. If the topic of discussion was “we’re going to identify kids who are a standard deviation below average and give them tutors,” I don’t think the discourse would go in the direction of “oh no tracking is racist and evil.” People want to feel that their kids are getting a good education. So whatever people get slotted into should be good. Career and technical education programs should have really nice facilities with well-compensated teachers who are held to a high standard. So should programs for academic high-fliers. Scarcity inevitably generates inequality and nasty fights about who gets what. What we want is a big educational opportunity pie, and I can see how failure to provide that generates momentum for detracking.
California’s school performance is troublingly bad
The sane person’s diagnosis of California’s struggles with high school math is that their eighth-graders are way below average in math competency. Looking at eighth-grade math NAEP scores, the high schools are starting with underprepared kids. California’s eighth-graders are doing worse than those in South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Texas, Tennessee, or North Carolina (among others), and it seems really unlikely that these red states delivered the goods by adopting a new social justice agenda.
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