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California State Board of Education Votes to Approve ‘Social Justice’ Approach to Math Curriculum

The California State Board of Education voted to adopt a new math framework on Wednesday that adds “meaning-making,” social justice, and an “inquiry” based approach to the curriculum.

The 1,000-page guidance seeks to put meaning-making at the center of the math classroom, promoting a focus on problem-solving and applying math knowledge to real-world situations, according to a report by Education Week.

The framework also encourages teachers to make math “culturally relevant” for all students, especially non-white students, the report adds.

“The United States has not been teaching math effectively or equitably. We are one of the lower-achieving countries — and California is below the national average in its achievement in mathematics,” Linda Darling-Hammond, the president of the California State Board of Education, said during the board’s meeting on Wednesday.

“This is an area of great need, and change is imperative. The same old, same old will not get us to a new place,” Darling-Hammond added.

The four core themes involved in the new curriculum guidance reportedly include inquiry-based instruction, equity and cultural responsiveness, high school course sequencing, and data science as a priority.

The “inquiry-based instruction” refers to a proposal in the framework that fundamentally shifts how math is structured throughout the grades. Instead of organizing curricula and instruction around individual standards, the guidance outlines “big ideas in mathematics” for each grade.

Teachers are encouraged to use inquiry to explore these “big ideas” designing “student investigations of intriguing, authentic problems,” Education Week reported.

The California framework says this will get students engaged in problem-solving that feels interesting to them and that demonstrates the real-world relevance of math.

Critics of the framework, however, say the studies referenced do not support claims about the efficacy of specific instructional choices. Math education experts have also argued against the idea that inquiry-based learning is the most effective way to teach students.

When it comes to “equity and cultural responsiveness,” the guidance reportedly encourages teachers to use math as a way to have students “examine inequities and address important issues in their lives and communities.”

But others in the mathematics community say that using math class as a venue to discuss social justice themes or solutions to public policy problems is not ideal.

In 2021, over a thousand signatories — many of them math and science professors and business professionals — outlined in an open letter pieces of a prior draft of the framework that they said would politicize the subject in a “potentially disastrous way.”

While some of the framework has reportedly since been revised, the focus on social justice nonetheless remains throughout the document.

As for the other themes involving “high school course sequencing” and “data science as a priority,” these refer to the framework’s suggestion that most students take Algebra I or equivalent courses in 9th grade — through either a traditional pathway or an “integrated” pathway that blends different math topics — and its encouragement for teaching data science throughout all course pathways.

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