Desi Roots, Global Wings – a monthly column focused on the Indian immigrant experience.
A few months ago, I published an article whose main thesis was this: Instead of stifling competition, let’s ensure all students are prepared.
I highlighted the importance of preparation in any endeavor whether it is the spelling bee, professional sports, the National Science Bowl, or exams for entry to elite STEM high schools. I described my experience offering twice-a-week one-on-one tutoring on Zoom to a 6th grade student. In just three months, my student went from a failing grade in math to a B.
Students struggle academically for a variety of reasons unrelated to aptitude. Many lack a parent or other mentor who can explain concepts patiently. Often, they don’t get sufficient practice, which is crucial for solidifying the understanding of core concepts. They don’t get positive reinforcement when they succeed or are not held accountable when they don’t put in the effort. In some cases, their peer groups may treat proficiency as uncool or irrelevant.
The resulting weak foundation leads to a rickety structure. Many students lose interest because their grasp of the basics is weak. An engaged and committed tutor can undo the effects of these deficiencies. Instead of eliminating competition, it is important to expand tutoring and other means of student preparation in order to increase every student’s chance at success.
So, it is important to offer tutoring and other remedial help to students who are not performing at grade level. There is no reason why this must happen at the expense of students who are already well-prepared and ready for advanced work.
Is the California Math Framework a Way Forward?
As I am sure many readers are aware, recently the Supreme Court agreed to hear a case about affirmative action in college admissions. There are debates, some of them quite acrimonious, about how history and race should be taught to children. Even though studies show the harm caused to schoolchildren by remote learning and masking, there are major disagreements about when and how schools can return to normal.
One topic that has not received the attention it deserves is the California Math Framework which is being updated with the goal of closing gaps in math achievement. The draft version of the framework will come up for final review in July 2022.
A fundamental aim of the framework is to respond to “issues of inequity” in mathematics learning. It seems quite reasonable on the surface—after all nobody wants students to be treated unfairly or to not master school subjects. However, upon digging deeper, it becomes clear that the framework is based on rejecting ideas of natural gifts or talents and on eliminating student tracking based on ability or preparedness. In other words, gaps are proposed to be eliminated by not letting the talent and ready marathoners get too far ahead.
Additionally, the chapter titled “Teaching for Equity and Engagement,” includes this statement: “Cultural relevance is important for learning and also for expanding a collective sense of what mathematical communities look and sound like to reflect California’s diverse history.” Which makes me wonder: Is 2+2 different based on culture and history?
David Hilbert, the German mathematician, famously said, “Mathematics knows no races or geographic boundaries; for mathematics, the cultural world is one country.” The proof of this statement lies in the success of mathematicians as diverse as S. Ramanujan (Indian), Katherine Johnson (and the other African American women immortalized in “Hidden Figures”), and Maryam Mirzakhani (Iranian). These mathematicians and countless others like them were not impeded by the disconnect between mathematics and their cultures and histories. In short, the California Math Framework misidentifies the problem and, not surprisingly, misdirects the solution.
Educators Are Alarmed
Is it any surprise that educators in public and private institutions and working professionals in the technology industry are alarmed? These professionals have composed an open letter to alert like-minded people and generate support for challenging this new approach to teaching mathematics.
The letter notes that in the process of reducing achievement gaps, middle and high school students’ access to advanced mathematical courses will be limited. While the results may superficially seem to have succeeded at reducing disparities at the high school level, in practice they merely end up “kicking the can” to college.
It is certainly possible to succeed in STEM at college without taking advanced courses in high school. But doing so is more challenging. College students who need to spend their early years taking introductory math courses may require more time to graduate. Also, they may need to give up other opportunities and are more likely to struggle academically.
In summary, the proposed reforms are likely to further disadvantage students who are already disadvantaged. At the same time, the reforms will hold back students who are talented and motivated to learn at an accelerated pace.
Being active citizens
Those of us who came of age in developing countries understand the connection between technology and human progress very well. Almost without any explicit advocacy, we internalized the idea that scientific thinking was the key to eliminating strife, scarcity, disease, superstition, grinding poverty, and similar ills that plagued the population.
While many of us were drawn to the US because of the high standard of living, we were also drawn by the opportunities available to those who are willing to persevere and to the culture of welcoming openness which gave us the confidence to believe that our children and grandchildren would enjoy the same.
However, the high standard of living that we enjoy here in the US is not an immutable artifact of Nature like a mountain range or a swift river. Rather, it is the result of many things, among them mastery of science and technology and of innovation in a whole host of areas, among them: developments in labor-saving devices, health sciences, new materials, solar-power, driverless cars… the list is endless. So, failing to nurture STEM talent, invest in, and reward those who possess it will result in diminished power to innovate and continue to improve quality of life.
Organizations like Khan Academy and other education non-profits (Encorps.org) are creating innovative solutions and devoting serious resources to reducing disparities in student achievement. In contrast, initiatives like the California Math Framework are akin to “declare victory and go home.” K-12 math students in California and elsewhere deserve much more.
We are stakeholders in America and need to do our part to make sure the country thrives and future generations get at least the same opportunities that we did. Citizenship is about more than voting every November. Rather, it is about remaining engaged, active, even vigilant. It is about forming alliances with individuals and groups who share our values and goals.
It is with all this in mind that I signed the open letter challenging the California Math Framework. I invite you to do the same.
Nandini Patwardhan is a retired software developer and co-founder of Story Artisan Press. Her writing has been published in, among others, the New York Times, Mutha Magazine, Talking Writing, and The Hindu. Her book, “Radical Spirits,” tells the deeply-researched story of Dr. Anandi-bai Joshee, India’s first woman doctor.