Math instruction in the United States traditionally follows a sequence: Algebra I in eighth grade, followed in succeeding grades by Geometry, Algebra II, and Precalculus. The progression is designed to give all students a good foundation in math and to allow advanced students to take Calculus in twelfth grade, academically preparing them for college majors in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math). Research shows that early access to algebra has resulted in more students taking advanced math coursework later in high school and increased academic achievement. For example, taking algebra in sixth grade is a key reason why students from China and Singapore routinely outperform U.S. students in math and science.
Yet, the math policy of the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD), implemented in 2014, has taken students backward by delaying Algebra I until ninth grade. The policy also requires all students, regardless of ability, to take the same course sequence until junior year, a process called “detracking.” Then, in eleventh grade, students can take a compressed Algebra II and Precalculus course. The stated goal of this approach was to make access to advanced math courses equitable.
Leaders in SFUSD claim that the policy has been successful because the Algebra I failure/repeat rate has been falling since 2014, and because more black and Hispanic students in eleventh grade enrolled in the Algebra II/Precalculus compression class, which the district labeled as “advanced math.” Jo Boaler, a Stanford University professor and one of the authors of California’s proposed mathematics framework, promoted SFUSD’s results as evidence that the rest of California’s school districts should adopt a similar approach.
Researchers and parent-advocacy groups such as Families for San Francisco (FSF) called SFUSD’s claims misleading. FSF’s analysis revealed that the district reduced the Algebra I failure/repeat rate only by eliminating the requirement to pass the Algebra 1 California Standards Test exit exam. As for the district’s claim that enrollment in advanced math has increased, FSF noted that the University of California system rejected SFUSD’s labeling of its compression class as “advanced math” because of its inadequate precalculus content. A group of STEM professors also declared that the compression course is “antithetical to responsible preparation.” After excluding the enrollment data of the compression class, FSF’s analysis shows that enrollment in advanced math classes actually declined. Worse still, another study found that achievement gaps among racial and ethnic groups in math have widened since SFUSD implemented the math policy.
In 2016, more than 1,000 parents signed a petition to bring back Algebra I in eighth grade. After the school district rejected the petition, families with means resorted to various workarounds, such as paying for private classes, tutoring, or enrolling their kids in private schools. One concerned grandfather admitted to paying more than $800 for his granddaughter to take an online course on Algebra I in the summer before she started ninth grade. He is preparing to pay another $1,000 to enroll her in an online precalculus class this summer. Meantime, poorer students, many of them minorities, are stuck in the system with no way out. Fewer of them will major in STEM in college or find careers utilizing those skills.
A newly released study from researchers at Stanford University confirms that SFUSD’s math policy hasn’t produced equity. The racial and ethnic gaps in enrollment in advanced math courses barely budged: “the percent of Black students enrolling in any AP math course has remained statistically significantly indistinguishable from the pre-policy period while Hispanic student enrollment in advanced math increased by 1 percentage point.” The study also confirms that “delaying Algebra I until ninth grade made it difficult for some students to complete the sequence of course prerequisites that would position them to take AP Calculus before graduating.” Thus, we can add SFUSD’s math sequence to the long list of progressive policies, from defunding police to minimum wage laws, that promise equity but end up hurting the very communities they are supposed to help.
Yet, SFUSD has shown no signs of reversing course. Worse yet, California’s Department of Education is seriously considering adopting SFUSD’s math curriculum for the rest of the state.
In March, fed-up parents sued SFUSD, alleging that its math policy has worsened racial and ethnic gaps by preventing students who can excel, especially those from poor and marginalized cohorts, from advancing. The lawsuit also accuses the district of violating California’s education code by requiring students to retake Algebra I in ninth grade even if they passed it elsewhere.
Anyone who thinks San Francisco’s algebra war affects only those who live there should think again. If California adopts SFUSD’s math policy at the state level, progressives in other states could follow suit. As California goes, so goes the nation—all too often.
Last year, nearly 1,800 educators, STEM professionals, and scientists, including Nobel laureates, signed an open letter cautioning against a wide adoption of SFUSD’s math policy: “Reducing access to advanced mathematics and elevating trendy but shallow courses over foundational skills would cause lasting damage to STEM education in the country and exacerbate inequality by diminishing access to the skills needed for social mobility.” It would also cripple the country’s economic competitiveness. America, you have been warned.