December 6, 2021 - 1:30pm

Maths ought to be the least political of subjects. It doesn’t matter if you’re Left or Right, two plus two always equals four. 

And yet in America, this most objective of subjects is turning into a battlefield. The controversy centres on the California Mathematics Framework (CMF) — a set of guidelines for the teaching of maths in the state’s public schools.

According to the New York Times, the framework would “de-emphasize calculus, reject the idea that some children are naturally gifted and build a connection to social justice.”

The objective may seem like a laudable one, to reduce inequalities in educational outcomes between different ethnic groups. However, some of methods chosen have caused widespread alarm. An open letter published yesterday protesting the CMF has been signed by over 500 distinguished mathematicians and scientists — including winners of the the Fields Medal. 

Two key objections stand out. 

The first is to the policy of delaying or restricting access to advanced courses in algebra and calculus. If the most accomplished students aren’t allowed to streak ahead, then in theory that would result in more equal outcomes, but only by levelling-down. This would be to the overall detriment of STEM education and to America’s international competitiveness.

Furthermore, the policy might also fail on its own objective of equalising outcomes. If students aren’t able to access teaching in the most challenging mathematical disciplines at school, then those with the most privileged and/or pushy parents will turn to private tutors and expensive online courses. Other students may have an aptitude for maths that means that they do well in the courses that they are taught and tested on. But if they’re left without a grounding in advanced topics like calculus — then they will struggle at college level. This is a recipe for more not less inequality.

The other major concern is over the introduction of soft option courses with not much actual mathematical content. Teaching the subject in a way that demonstrates its relevance to modern life is a great idea, but what gets taught still needs to be maths and not merely maths-adjacent. 

The open letter doesn’t say much about the ideology that leads to the levelling-down approach. But if one takes the Left-wing approach of emphasising equality of outcome above all other considerations — including equality of opportunity — then this sort of policy is exactly what we can expect. 

It’s an astonishing irony that this is taking place in California — a state whose economy is built upon its world-beating tech industry and thus the application of advanced mathematics. While it is encouraging that so many academics and researchers are speaking out, they need to be joined by major employers. 

But with few exceptions, we can expect Silicon Valley to maintain its alliance with California’s ultra-liberal policy-makers. The tech lords will remain within their exclusive enclaves, while the rest of the state decays around them. 

Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.