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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

'Big ideas' aren't always good ideas

Impatience is the besetting sin of progressive education. Progressives want to skip the boring, old fundamentals -- phonics, multiplication tables -- and go straight to deeper, higher or perhaps broader learning. They want students to learn without being taught explicitly.

It would be nice if it worked, but it usually doesn't.

California's board of education has adopted new guidelines for teaching math that hope "to build a conceptual understanding of what students will learn before delving into math procedures and algorithms that traditionally have come first," writes John Fensterwald on EdSource. Teachers will stress "big ideas." Students will solve real-world problems.

Board President Linda Darling-Hammond said the revised framework includes both "fluency and proficiency" in learning math facts, thanks to a last-minute amendment, and "investigation and inquiry."

Education researcher Tom Loveless, who'd criticized the earlier version, said the “message that math facts can be treated lightly remains.”

I'm reminded of what happened when teachers were told that "whole language" wasn't working, but didn't want to teach old, boring phonics. They compromised on "balanced literacy," which had a bit of both methods, but no explicit, systematic teaching. It didn't work for most students, especially those whose parents couldn't teach them at home or hire tutors.

The framework included a diagram of high school course pathways that showed all students taking Algebra 1 (or Math 1, its "integrated" equivalent) in ninth grade. A revision added an asterisk to the diagram and a single sentence, writes Fensterwald. “Students may take Algebra 1 or Mathematics 1 in middle school.”

San Francisco Unified, which piloted the framework's ideas in 2015, has abandoned a policy of mandating all students take ninth-grade algebra "after evidence that it held back advanced students while failing to narrow inequities," he reports. The path to calculus and future STEM careers started with summer school or other "work-arounds" that required parents to have money and/or savvy.

In June, San Francisco Superintendent Matt Wayne said the district's reform math curriculum "isn't working," after a Stanford study, reports Allyson Aleksey in the San Francisco Examiner. "Standardized test results in 2022 found that only 9% of SFUSD’s Black students met or exceeded state math standards," and overall math scores "are lower than comparable Bay Area school districts."

The guidelines also dropped the idea that students could skip Algebra 2 in favor of "data science" classes. Instead, teachers will be urged to include data analysis in other courses.

A University of California faculty committee, BOARS, had decided that UC applicants could take data science instead of Algebra 2 to satisfy their math requirement, but changed its mind Friday, saying it needed proof that data courses included enough advanced math.

The framework still includes a "social justice" focus, notes Sarah Schwartz in Education Week. The idea is that students will be motivated and engaged if they're using math "to examine inequities and address important issues in their lives and communities."

"Math class should be for math, not for political indoctrination," writes Bill Evers of the Independent Institute.

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