Can California Close the Achievement Gap in Math?

By Brian Soika

November 16, 2021

A teacher shows an example of long division on a white board as California tries to close the achievement gap in math

Photo/Allison Shelley for EDU Images (CC BY-NC 4.0)

The majority of California’s K-12 students struggle with math. But challenges are experienced most acutely among many students of color. 

This is the central problem that the state’s Department of Education seeks to address with its proposed revision to the California Mathematics Framework. The proposal states that “mathematics, over the years, has developed in a way that has excluded many students.”

However, the proposal has been met with fierce resistance by educators and parents. 

The guidelines challenge the concept of gifted education, and recommend changes to long-standing policies in math education. While the guidelines are non-binding, if approved they could have a significant impact as California serves over six million K-12 students. 

Key Recommendations From the Proposal:

  • Create more inclusive math curriculum
  • Eliminate accelerated math courses starting in middle school
  • Group all students, regardless of achievement level, into the same class
  • Offer higher-level courses in high school as alternatives to calculus
  • Tie math concepts to social justice issues

“Disparities in math learning are complex and can be overcome by a more comprehensive and systematic approach” –Yasemin Copur-Gencturk, Assistant Professor of Education

The Pushback

Opponents to the proposal say that de-tracking, or eliminating accelerated courses, limits the potential of students who are capable of taking advanced math. It may also disadvantage struggling students who need more individualized attention. 

Some experts have raised other questions. “I’m not sure how the suggested solutions will effectively address the inequity our students are facing,” said USC Rossier Assistant Professor of Education Yasemin Copur-Gencturk, who instructs teacher development courses in mathematics. 

Focusing solely on curriculum may be insufficient. “Disparities in math learning are complex and can be overcome by a more comprehensive and systematic approach… Teachers, principals, administrators, curriculum developers, parents, and students need opportunities to understand how they may be unintentionally contributing to these disparities,” she added.

Math and College Access

The proposal notes that “calculus is considered the main course for Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics (STEAM)-oriented students, and is only available to students who are considered ‘advanced’ in middle school.” Being on an advanced math track often leads to calculus in high school, which has been tied to higher levels of college enrollment. 

However, according to Department of Education data, many urban schools serving large populations of Black and Latino students do not offer calculus as an option. As an alternative, the guidelines recommend schools offer other high-level courses such as data science or statistics.

National Opposition

California’s curriculum guidelines have caught the attention of national media. In the wake of the state’s ethnic studies debate and a nationwide conflict over issues such as critical race theory, outlets have focused on the proposal’s social justice advocacy. 

However, Californians have also expressed concern that the proposal forces an ideological interpretation of a subject that has traditionally remained apolitical.