Let’s Create a Mathematics Framework That Works for All Students

My name is Jo Boaler. I am a mathematics education professor at Stanford University. I was one of five authors of California’s proposed new mathematics framework. Unfortunately, the debate about the best way to teach math correctly has become very contentious, and I continue to be the target of misinformation and even personal attacks.

This piece originally appeared in EdSource.

One of the circulated myths about me concerns allowing students to accelerate through math classes by taking more advanced classes. In fact, I am not at all opposed to student advancement, as long as the system for allowing that advancement does not systematically push Black and brown students out of higher-level mathematics. Unfortunately, our current system operates in this way. The National Center for Education Statistics shares a graph showing the extreme racial differences in the students who take calculus in high school.

A second myth is that I oppose the teaching of algebra, calculus or math facts, when, in fact, our youcubed website shares research-informed ways to teach all three of these topics.

The misinformation comes from some of the people opposed to the ideas in California’s draft framework. Yet, the two most contested ideas are both being pursued by states across the country.

The first concerns the sequence of math courses students take through high school. In California and nationwide, this is based on a framework established 131 years ago by the National Education Association’s working group of upper-class, white, male educators, composed mostly of representatives from higher education.  Since then, high schools have focused on one pathway that culminates in students taking calculus in 12th grade. But there’s one glaring problem: the calculus pathway includes five courses, and there are only four years of high school.

This has led schools to compress middle school mathematics courses so some students have the opportunity to learn algebra in middle school. Schools create a high-level pathway that leads to calculus and a low-level pathway that often leads to a sort of “mathematical nowhere.” Typically, middle schools use data from elementary school to decide on these pathways, meaning that a test students take when they are 10 or younger often determines whether they will be able to take calculus in their final year of high school.

Related: Despite Divisions, Math Framework Must Be A ‘North Star,’ Experts Say

This sorting of young students, pushing most of them away from high-level pathways, has led to indefensible racial and social inequities, with only 16% of students in the U.S. taking calculus in high school.

The effects of this faulty system are clear across the country, but California is particularly in need of change. Currently, California ranks near the bottom nationally in the proportion of students graduating from college with degrees in science, technology engineering and mathematics. To make up for this shortfall, California’s leading tech companies had to bring in more than 10,000 people from overseas to fill jobs last year alone.

Some claim that to address this flawed system, California’s proposed math framework requires “widescale detracking.” This is absolutely not the case. In fact, the current draft framework recommends several approaches to address the inequities in our system that do not eliminate tracking, including:

  • Restructuring some of the content in the high school years so there are not more courses in front of calculus than years of high school.
  • Delaying tracking decisions to seventh grade so that students at least have some time in middle school to develop mathematical interests.
  • Giving students and their families choices about the pathways students take.

The second contested idea is to allow students to study data science in high school, following the changed recommendations of the University of California and California State University. This means students have more choices in their high school years, and some will opt to take data science instead of Algebra 2. Students choosing data science may take statistics as a culminating course, an option that is already encouraging a broader group of students to pursue advanced mathematics courses.

Related: Deep Divisions, Further Delay For California’s Math Guidelines

Opponents say that all students should take Algebra 2, as some students might skip Algebra 2 only to find that they need it for a STEM degree later. Unfortunately, requiring that all students take Algebra 2 has led to far too many students never taking another math course in high school. A productive long-term project for California would be to create courses that combine algebra and data science, an approach being pursued in the state of Washington.

California’s proposed framework recommends flexibility in the creation of new high school courses that teach important mathematics content. Mathematics is a broad subject, and there is no reason to provide only one high-level pathway for our students.

The five co-authors of the framework developed proposals based on recommendations from 20 mathematics leaders appointed by the state, who met for a year, and whose discussions were informed by focus groups of California teachers. County offices across California, a range of California organizations, teachers and STEM professors have supported the framework’s recommendations.

Making change in mathematics education is hard. Even ideas that should not be contentious, such as the neuroscientific evidence that our brains are constantly developing and changing; that challenge is good for our brains; and that mathematics learning benefits from visual and physical representations of mathematics, are seemingly difficult to accept.

And as to my own beliefs. I believe in the worth of all students. I do not think we should limit students’ mathematical futures in elementary school, nor do I think we should accept racial and gender inequities. Hopefully, these are not controversial ideas.

In order to move beyond contention and misinformation we need to open communication between the groups who have different opinions on the framework, for the sake of all California’s students. I am confident that respectful communication would lead to dialogue, learning on both sides and even agreement. Critiques are essential and welcomed when their intention is to improve equitable opportunities and outcomes for young people. As the leaders of the Math Association for America have urged, educators in higher education and K-12 need to work together so our schools can provide all students, in their rich diversity, an opportunity to learn and excel in math.


Jo Boaler
Jo Boaler is the Nomellini and Olivier Professor in the Stanford University Graduate School of Education and one of the authors of the revision of California’s mathematics framework.

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