California Has Proposed New Math Standards

Copyright 2021 Tony Lima. All rights reserved. PDF version immediately following the endnotes.

Designed to Make All High School Graduates Equally Dumb

California has proposed new math standards for public K-12 education. The apparent aim of these guidelines is to make California’s performance in the 2019 eighth grade[1] mathematics section of the National Assessment of Educational Progress[2] even worse. In the NAEP survey, California ranked 44th out of the 50 states, fully eight points below the national public-school average (500 points possible, California’s average was 276). Click here for my Excel workbook copy of the results.[3]

The apparent aim of these guidelines is to make California’s performance in the 2019 eighth grade mathematics section of the National Assessment of Educational Progress even worse.

Here’s the quick summary of the state’s objectives for math education in grades K-12.[4]

This framework adopts the implicit understanding that all students are capable of accessing and mastering school mathematics in the ways envisioned in California Common Core Standards for Mathematics (CA CCSSM). “Mastering” means becoming inclined and able to consider novel situations (arising either within or outside mathematics) through a variety of appropriate mathematical tools, using those tools to understand the situation and, when desired, to exert their own power to affect the situation. Thus, mathematical power is not reserved for a few, but available to all.

Translating this potential into reality requires a school mathematics system built to achieve this purpose. Current structures often reinforce existing factors that allow access for some while telling others they don’t belong; structures must instead challenge those factors by providing relevant, authentic mathematical experiences that make it clear to all students that mathematics is a powerful tool for making sense of and affecting their worlds. This will be an important contribution to equitable outcomes.

Translation: Some students do better than others in math. That makes math education inequitable. We want equity in all things. Therefore, we will not allow students who are good at math to remain that way.

This is, of course, a terrible idea. Let’s review 64 years of history to see why.

The Sputnik Generation

I am a member of the baby boom generation. I am also a member of the Sputnik generation. We were among the first to experience tracking systems in grades 8-12. If I remember correctly,[5] there were two tracks in each of three fields: English, math, and science. I was in the upper track for math and science. English? The lower track.[6]

This was intentional. The government realized that competing with the late Soviet Union (USSR) meant we needed more people proficient in math and science. And it worked. Today the U.S. is still the only country that has had humans walk on the moon.

The motivation for this was Sputnik.[7] On October 4, 1957 the Soviets launched the first artificial satellite into orbit. This was an enormous shock to the U.S. government, especially the Defense Department. The U.S. tried to respond. Here’s the chronology from NASA:

California Has Proposed New Math Standards NASA chronology 1957-1958

(click for larger image)

That’s a whole lot of hardware blowing up. Little wonder that the generals and admirals were worried.

Today’s challenges are no different than those faced in 1957. Other countries are outperforming our public schools by leaps and bounds, especially in (surprise) science and math. The worst thing we could do is handicap the best students in these fields. But the drive for equity at all costs has led many to this point. The problem, of course, is that equity is often the enemy of excellence. Rather than argue this point, let’s look at a work that is at least as prophetic as George Orwell’s 1984.

Harrison Bergeron

“Harrison Bergeron” is a short story written by Kurt Vonnegut in 1961.[8] Here are the first two paragraphs:

THE YEAR WAS 2081, and everybody was finally equal. They weren’t only equal before God and the law. They were equal every which way. Nobody was smarter than anybody else. Nobody was better looking than anybody else. Nobody was stronger or quicker than anybody else. All this equality was due to the 211th, 212th, and 213th Amendments to the Constitution, and to the unceasing vigilance of agents of the United States Handicapper General.

Some things about living still weren’t quite right, though. April for instance, still drove people crazy by not being springtime. And it was in that clammy month that the H-G men took George and Hazel Bergeron’s fourteen-year-old son, Harrison, away.

Suffice it to say that Harrison is well above average, both physically and mentally. In fact, “Nobody had ever born heavier handicaps. He had outgrown hindrances faster than the H-G men could think them up.”

H-G is the office of the Handicapper General, one Diana Moon Glampers, who oversees making sure everyone is equal in both theory and practice. Let’s just say things do not end well for Harrison.

I read this story in the mid-1960s. It was as frightening then as it is today.

Conclusion

For better or worse, California is often a leading indicator for the rest of the country. I hope that is not the case here. We would not have COVID vaccines today without the work of some very smart, well-trained people.

I promise there are many private schools that are not skimping on science and math. As long as we do not actually become the country described in “Harrison Bergeron” there will still be advances that seem miraculous to most of us. But students in public schools will not share equally in those successes. Which will, of course, make inequality even worse. As is so often the case, good intentions will lead to bad outcomes.

  1. I chose eighth grade because data was available for all jurisdictions. Also, there was no 2019 data available for twelfth grade in the 2019.
  2. National Assessment of Educational Progress (2019). U.S. Department of Education. Available at https://www.nationsreportcard.gov/profiles/stateprofile?chort=2&sub=MAT&sj=AL&sfj=NP&st=MN&year=2019R3. Accessed May 4, 2021.
  3. These results include Department of Defense schools, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico.
  4. California Department of Education (2021). “Mathematics Framework” First Field Review Draft, January 2021, chapter 1 page 20. Available at https://www.cde.ca.gov/ci/ma/cf/documents/mathfwchapter1.docx. Accessed May 4, 2021.
  5. This is always a dicey proposition at my age.
  6. This induced me to work very hard on my writing. I’ve written several books and countless articles since 1980.
  7. NASA History Division. “Sputnik and the Dawn of the Space Age.” Available at https://history.nasa.gov/sputnik.html. Accessed May 5, 2021.
  8. “Harrison Bergeron” was copyrighted by Kurt Vonnegut in 1961. The full text is available at the Internet Archive https://archive.org/stream/HarrisonBergeron/Harrison%20Bergeron_djvu.txt. As far as I can tell from searching copyright.gov, the copyright has lapsed.
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About Tony Lima

Retired after teaching economics at California State Univ., East Bay (Hayward, CA). Ph.D., economics, Stanford. Also taught MBA finance at the California University of Management and Technology. Occasionally take on a consulting project if it's interesting. Other interests include wine and technology.