No Child Left Ahead

by Pamela Fox

The Virginia Department of Education is planning a radical change to mathematics education in grades K-12, deceptively packaged as just a means of offering additional math classes to high schoolers. Dubbed the Virginia Mathematics Pathways Initiative (VMPI), the plan is actually a stealthy attempt to lower standards and eliminate all advanced math tracking prior to 11th grade, thereby putting Virginia’s brightest students at a competitive disadvantage for college admissions and postsecondary STEM majors.

Reference materials on the VMPI webpage reveal the initiative’s true motivations, stating “the current mathematics education system is unjust and grounded in a legacy of institutional discrimination based on race, ethnicity, class, and gender,” and demanding acknowledgment of “the roles power, privilege, and oppression play in the current unjust system of mathematics education.”

These positions are echoed in VMPI’s online forums, where spokespeople explain their plans to eliminate Algebra 1, Geometry, and Algebra 2 classes, and to end accelerated math classes “to address inequities.”

How did we get here and can anything be done to stop this train wreck before it happens?

Just a few short years ago, STEM was the buzzword in education. American K-12 students were encouraged to study math and science to meet 21st century demands and compete with rivals like the Chinese. The U.S. Department of Education still encourages states to offer 8th-grade Algebra 1 so students can “take higher level mathematics and science courses, [thus] allow[ing] sufficient time to take the more advanced courses that are often prerequisites for postsecondary STEM majors.” To its credit, Virginia is one of only a handful of states that offers Algebra 1 to almost all 8th graders.

Times have certainly changed.

Today, EQUITY has replaced STEM as the new buzzword in education. Across the nation, individual STEM schools have scrapped merit based admissions tests in order to close racial admission gaps. With VMPI, Virginia is leading a statewide assault against mathematics education with a primary stated goal of achieving equity.

Some changes recommended by VMPI are laudable, such as introducing alternative high school math classes like data science, for students who want four years of high school math but don’t want to take Calculus. The question is, why can’t this be achieved without banning tracking and higher level math?

The biggest problem with VMPI is that it eliminates every student’s ability to take accelerated math until 11th grade. Instead, all students in grades 4-7 march lockstep through a new curriculum called “Foundation Concepts” followed by “Essential Concepts” in grades 8-10. Shockingly, Algebra 1, Geometry, and Algebra 2 will be scrapped as individual classes. VMPI has not explained what concepts are being cut or how such cuts might affect future performance in higher math or on the SAT.

VMPI tries to brush off such concerns by claiming advanced students will receive “deeper” learning through “differentiated” instruction. As any experienced teacher knows, however, differentiated math instruction in a class of 20 to 30 students with widely varying aptitudes is nearly impossible. Either teachers will be forced to teach to the lowest common denominator and the brightest students will languish, or teachers will teach to the middle and struggling students will fall behind.

Another major problem is that no advanced math can be taken until junior year. Precalculus, normally a one-year class, is crammed into one semester. That means students will be far less prepared for advanced math and would be capped at calculus senior year. Science classes requiring Algebra 2 or Calculus as a corequisite or prerequisite would almost certainly suffer attrition, since students would not have time to take them before graduation.

So why this race to the bottom? Why the ban on accelerated tracking? The answer can be found in VDOE presentations and in the VMPI’s cited position papers. They claim “tracking is a form of de facto segregation” and “those that have been privileged by the current system must be willing to give up that privilege for more equitable schooling.”

The time is now to take a stand against this damaging initiative. Contact VDOE, your local schools, and your Virginia state representatives and let them know your position. While you’re at it, ask why VDOE is spending time and money trying to decimate Virignia’s math curriculum, rather than going after underperforming school districts which, year after year, fail to educate their students. To truly achieve equity, the VDOE needs to raise the bar for failing schools, not lower standards for everyone else.

Pamela Fox is the parent of four children educated through Fairfax County Public Schools.