Commentary

In Defense of Accelerated Math Tracks

Solar Lu

 

A new education proposal in California is effectively trying to stop accelerated math tracks. Although the purpose is to close the racial and socioeconomic disparities that are often found in education, especially in math education, ending accelerated programs is not an effective solution for that problem. The real issue at hand is that kids with stronger backgrounds in maths are given more resources outside of school to help them succeed. The solution is not preventing these kids from advancing, as this solution benefits the state more than the students by creating a less individualized teaching approach. Instead, the government ought to find a way to allocate more resources to an education that tailors to the needs of all students. While finding the funds to give all students the resources they need to succeed is challenging, investing more into the different possibilities of math education and providing more options, instead of less, is the only way to allow students to thrive. 

The new guidelines seem like a budget cut in the guise of equity. Instead of investing more resources into the math education system overall by adding various math levels to address different student needs, this proposal cuts down on the variety of math classes available. Cramming students of every level into the same class creates a burden for teachers to have to somehow adjust their curriculum to this wide range of understanding. Some students might feel that their class is solely review, while others might struggle because  they did not have adequate resources to learn the foundational background material. The state is already facing  trouble finding math teachers, so it is unreasonable to assume that teachers would take on more work to make sure every student is adequately challenged and no student falls behind. 

Although the California proposal argues that cutting back on accelerated programs would create better learning environments by making sure no student feels like a less capable math student based upon their previous math experience, classrooms in which some students are years ahead of others in terms of mathematical knowledge hinder all students’ ability to thrive. The teacher would have no way to grade in a way that does not just reward students that have already learned the material and deduct points from those that did not have the same opportunities to get ahead of the curriculum. Putting students of all levels together would be more likely to discourage those less far along in the math curriculum, because they would be graded on the same scale as students with a stronger mathematical background. 

Math is the subject of a lot of anxiety for students, and I believe offering more options tailored to students’ individual needs, instead of less, will reduce that stress. According to MathForAll,  roughly 20% of students have math anxiety, and many more consider it one of their hardest classes. The people I know who say they enjoy math are also the ones who tell me that they were incredibly bored in their middle school classes. Clearly, the mismatch between math classes and students’ individual needs causes most students to develop negative feelings about math. To help students enjoy math more, the government must fund more classes to fit the needs of students with a wide variety of math backgrounds, not destroy accelerated tracks in favor of one uniform curriculum.

Finding the money to create more resources for students is admittedly challenging, but I believe any investment in the math system will pay off. While it is not possible to tailor classes to every individual, I don’t think it’s too far-fetched to create more class options and have a wider range of levels available to students. One place that spending could be moved from is tutoring. According to EdSource, California spends roughly $2.6 billion on tutors for students. Investing part of that into the math system would allow students to learn more in classes better suited to their level. They would need less tutors in math because the students would be in a class taught at a level just right for them, so the money would only be moved from one place to another. According to the California Department of Education, the state spends roughly $76 billion in total for k-12 education, including facilities, supplies, teachers wages, etc., so transferring as little as a quarter of funding for tutoring to funding for math programs could make a huge difference to the options that could be offered to students.

I support parts of the California proposal, like de-emphasizing the importance of calculus by promoting data science and statistics and including more real world applications of math in classrooms. I also support the underlying principle of equity, but I don’t think the principle is effectively applied by  getting rid of accelerated tracks or dismantling programs that challenge kids who have a stronger math background than their peers. I truly hope that, as the draft of this proposal is revised, the part of the proposal calling for the removal of accelerated tracks in math education is removed. Every student deserves to be taught at the right pace for them, and every student has the right to advance to higher level classes instead of being held back. I also hope that they will see that the solution is not to get rid of different levels, but to add more. Even if California can only find the funding to create a single new class, that will make the problem smaller and make learning math more enjoyable for students. It is only by creating more options for students that California can create a math program that will allow the greatest number of students possible to succeed.