Why are misinformation and confusing narratives so prevalent when it comes to math education policy debates? As a former journalist now focused on math ed, I have thought about this a lot. Though there is no simple answer, a few factors are clear: Many people—including parents, education leaders, and journalists—do not see themselves as “math people” and can be deferential to those they see as experts. Those who aren’t experienced in the complexity of math education can latch onto low-hanging rhetoric or incomplete facts, especially if their children’s futures are at stake.
This sets the stage for misinformation or one-sided perspectives on fractious math matters to propagate, obscuring reality. It can be hard to see through this fog, especially when debates become political. As The Washington Post’s Christine Emba noted in a column about math education:
Progressive activists have made terms such as “anti-racism” and “decolonization” the stuff of best-selling books, their use de rigueur in any conversation about diversity and equity. Conservatives, in turn, have jumped on such talk with delighted fury: It’s Marxism! Wokeism! These teachers hate America and want to hobble our tiny geniuses!
All of this is misrepresentation, of course.
In debates over California’s recently approved math framework, we saw how misleading narratives can feed hysteria, harm public discussion, and interfere with the goal of improving math learning. And they can find their way unchecked into mainstream news.
One form of misinformation is the use of straw-man claims, which were common when California’s framework introduced third-year courses such as data science in addition to Algebra II, something many states are doing. The pushback was that students need to take calculus if they want to major in STEM. That accurate claim carried the inaccurate implication that someone was arguing that STEM majors no longer need to take calculus. But no one ever said that. As revisions of the framework made clear, adding new courses was designed to give students additional options and doesn’t prevent them from taking calculus.
Was this an intentional ploy by the opponents of change? Or genuine fear that excitement about data science would lead to a knee-jerk rejection of traditional courses on the path to calculus, such as Algebra II? We may never know, but the resulting effect on media coverage is to obscure, rather than shed light.
In a recent editorial, the San Diego Union Tribune picked up on this theme, arguing that California was limiting access to advanced math courses. Yet the approved version of the framework states otherwise. As State Board of Education president Linda Darling-Hammond noted in a letter to the editor, the document “clarifies that schools can choose to accelerate students into Algebra I or Math I in eighth grade, and it provides research about how to do that more successfully than in the past.”
A variant of the straw-man narrative has been the use of outdated information. This is what happened in Middletown, Conn. In August, parents were in an uproar over proposed changes to high school math sequences. However, the alarm was partly caused by references to a defunct early draft of California’s math framework.
A local news story tied the plan to a two-year-old version that had since undergone multiple revisions—by linking to an outdated news article and petition. (My email to the reporter suggesting up-to-date links went unreturned.)
The Atlantic made a similar mistake, running a piece critiquing California’s math framework. The problem? The criticisms focused almost entirely on the 2021 and 2022 drafts, instead of on the approved 2023 final draft. The ostensible purpose of this article was to warn other states, such as Ohio, against following in California’s footsteps. However, Ohio had actually adopted an array of high school math options, including data science, several years ago—before California. As had several other states.
Another form of misinformation has been leaks of incomplete or confusing information. In July, the UC system’s admissions board privately registered concern about whether some high school data science courses currently accepted by the system cover enough Algebra II content to meet the system’s third-year math requirement. But even though no operational policy had been adopted and the work group that was supposed to recommend specific criteria for approved math courses had yet to be appointed, unnamed participants from the board’s meeting shared details of the discussion with the media.
“Those courses … should not have been approved as an advanced math course or a replacement for Algebra II,” one attendee told the Chronicle of Higher Education.
Such irresponsible leaks, which included critiques of specific data science courses, only muddied the waters. Since no criteria had been set, university officials were unable to respond to the leaks, making it nearly impossible for school districts to receive clear and accurate information. Three months later, a work group has finally been appointed; we still don’t know what they will decide, how their decisions will be implemented, and whether modified versions of the courses in question would meet any updated requirements.
Given the timing of the leaks, the obvious intention was to influence the State Board of Education’s consideration of the math framework a few days later. There was no need to confuse school districts, because any changes would not affect current students anyway.
The coverage only spawned more inaccurate confusion, as national outlets appeared to conflate the viewpoints of the UC admissions board with the actions of the board of education, which governs K–12 education. In its story, The New York Times stated that the State Board of Education rescinded its approval for data science courses to substitute for Algebra II, which is false.
The state board had never approved data science courses in the first place, so there was no approval to rescind. Plus, Algebra II has never been a state requirement for high school graduation. Lastly, the state board has no responsibility for college admission. It does oversee requirements for California high school graduates, only 20 percent of whom go on to attend a public university in the state.
It is unfortunate that this misinformation has been propagating, because it distracts and detracts from clear-eyed decision-making and factual reporting.
Fortunately, some of the reporting did manage to shed light on areas of disagreement, helping readers navigate through the confusion. In covering the final vote on California’s math framework, John Fensterwald of EdSource sought to clear things up by focusing on the final version of the framework and quoting the board president, Linda Darling-Hammond, in detail. Below are two examples from his reporting:
Board President Linda Darling-Hammond said some commenters “who see the world through a polarized math war lens” falsely pitted “investigation and inquiry against solid learning of math facts in ways that assure fluency and proficiency.” She pointed out the balance that inquiry and teaching standard algorithms both were mentioned four dozen times in the same framework chapter; math fluency was mentioned 23 times.
Darling-Hammond said that the position on eighth-grade algebra also was misconstrued. The framework emphasizes the ability of students to accelerate in middle school or high school at different times, at their own pace; what must end is tracking, starting in early elementary school that locks mostly low-income, Latino and Black students, on a track to nowhere, she said. The framework encourages acceleration options, whether geometry in a summer program, personalized learning, or a compressed course in high school. She cited an example in New York, where support classes and a redesigned curriculum enabled an entire class of middle schoolers to take algebra in eighth grade.
Math education coverage can use more attempts to see through the rhetoric and de-emphasize the extremes. Here is how Christine Emba did this on the question of culturally responsive teaching, in the column I mentioned earlier:
What is really being suggested is that math be taught in students’ vernacular—with problems based on where they live, for instance, or geometry related to familiar objects and instructional styles that lean into student strengths.
Making a subject interesting and relevant so that a student will engage with it isn’t a nefarious liberal plot; it’s good teaching. In many cases, there is evidence that more accessible instructional methods benefit learners and even improve test scores.
And here is what she had to say about the debate over middle school math acceleration:
Yes, there are students who seem more naturally talented at math than others. And it’s true that children who have an early interest in or substantial facility for math shouldn’t be forced to suppress their desire to learn and progress in the name of “equity.” That would be equity to the lowest common denominator, which no one is actually asking for.
But it is also true that certain modes of identifying and fast-tracking those students may be shaped by unintentionally race-based bias: how educators expect someone “good at math” to look and act. This can have negative implications for students who don’t fit the preconceived mold—either leaving them underserved or discouraging their achievement.”
I couldn’t have said it better myself.
For more information please see this postscript.
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