by Peter Franklin
Monday, 6
December 2021
Campus Wars
13:30

California mathematicians turn against woke curriculum

A group of 500 teachers and scientists have objected to a politicised syllabus
by Peter Franklin
Credit: Getty

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. 

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  • 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.
    When the US talent base is depleted due to progressive educational policies, big tech will simply lobby to increase the number of work visas for qualified foreigners.

  • Regarding your first point: all I can say is that the Chinese must be rolling on the floor with laughter.
    Regarding your second point: ‘is it not more likely the push for equity is coming from a lower level of society who are rather stupid and believe the socialist ideology?’ – I would say no. I know that this policy is coming from the US and that as a Brit I have limited knowledge of the US lower classes, but I can’t believe that there is much difference between the attitudes of working class people in the US and UK (except maybe on guns and religion – if you took out the references to guns and religion then JD Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy could equally have been written about the UK). In the UK working classes, and I am sure in the US too, everyone loves a story about the little guy who makes it big despite life’s adversities. If that little guy ends up being a millionaire, then everyone wishes him well and no-one wants to bring him back down. The key thing is that the working classes (at least in the UK) have never pushed for equity of outcome – they realise that would be communism. Many of them have instead argued for equal opportunity, which is a different matter. I would suggest that the push for equity is coming from the wealthier end of the middle classes. Certainly in the UK the debate amongst the woke seems to care more about equity when it comes to comparing one newsreader who is on a quarter of a million pounds per year against another who is on half a million. They are not interested in the plights of the poor. 

  • true. In NZ there is a permanent ‘tail’ of low educational acheivers that no amount of money can fix cos their parents are happy for them to eat chips and coke whilst blobbing on the couch watching crap TV or worse (but it is absolutely not OK to ever point this out in case someone’s feelings are hurt or some responsibility might have to be taken …)

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