Virginia’s Math Path Could Erode Equity

Virginia Superintendent of Public Instruction James Lane

by Andy Rotherham

Years ago Fairfax County Public Schools superintendent Bud Spillane had a plan to collapse early grades K-2 into an ability group approach. He went around the county explaining the approach to parents. They generally liked it because it offered customization and a more individualized experience.

Then, at some point parents starting asking, “but how will I know when my kid is in the first grade?” And pretty soon the idea fell apart. What Tyack and Cuban call the “grammar of schooling” is indeed potent. People like conceptual approaches; they like knowing when their kid is in first grade more.

I suspect the same fate will befall this idea in Virginia to change the sequence and scope of middle and high school math in the name of “equity.” It sort of already is. As soon as the idea made contact with parents and media the state superintendent submarined it and the Department of Education overhauled its website.

The Washington Post wrote a somewhat credulous story about the whole thing largely blaming the confusion on conservative media, that’s the lede. They changed the website! (Democracy updates the html in darkness?) This Virginia Mercury story has more texture. If you have no hobbies, here and here are some video discussions of the issues you can watch. Weirdly, an idea floated to do away with the state’s advanced studies diploma hasn’t set off the same firestorm.

Anyway, it’s unfortunate because the core idea of pathways math is not all bad. It’s hard to argue with helping more students see themselves in math and as math users. And the idea that students need math to sort through information and misinformation they are bombarded by is something I think is pretty on point. Plus, there is an argument that we should rethink math. Thinking about different ways to sequence content makes a lot of sense. Inertia is powerful in schooling. We should talk about this.

The problem here, instead, seems three-fold. Substantively this approach opens the door to further walk back rigor and increase in the opacity of what’s being taught- something that has been happening for a decade in Virginia with all the goal post moving on standards and school accreditation. Politically, it’s going to freak out parents. It’s a misreading of what happened to think this is just unpopular among conservatives. On top of all that, the whole pathways math seems unlikely to actually solve the state’s basic education equity problem despite being billed as equity math or an equity-focused approach to math or math through and equity lens.

Here’s the deal. Virginia, like most states, has serious achievement gaps. They show up on the state’s own tests, on national measure like the NAEP, and in various outcome measures like high school diplomas and post-secondary attainment. If you know anything at all about Virginia history, this shouldn’t be surprising.

What is surprising is how efforts to address these issues mostly focus on public relations. The state has a long and embarrassing track record of trying to obscure these gaps. Former governor (and current candidate for governor) Terry McAulliffe was more concerned about the stigma of lousy schools than improving the schools. Current governor Ralph Northam campaigned saying that it was unfair to hold “diverse” schools to the same standards as other schools. Under Governor Tim Kaine the state tried via a string of waiver requests to stay one step ahead of No Child Left Behind’s requirements to avoid calling attention to these inequities.

Though the state is starting to disaggregate data, Virginia’s own school accreditation/accountability system (which is obviously and understandably on pause given the pandemic) still pays insufficient attention to achievement gaps and is designed more as a public relations gambit for the schools than a serious accountability scheme. The state superintendent describes it here. For their part, Governors Warner and McDonnell tried to do some reforms, made a few dents, but generally ran into an education establishment whose posture toward reform ranged from no, to hell no, on the big stuff.* Now, Republicans are basically AWOL on the issue; Dems won’t cross adult special interests.

Basically, over the past decade there has been a mostly steady decline in accountability through changes to how the state accredits schools and changes to cut scores on the various tests. All this in a state where 16% of Black and 19% of low-income 8th-graders are proficient in math on the NAEP (for context it’s 46% for white and for Asian 65% so plenty of work to do overall). Meanwhile, state leaders take pride in their ability to fend off reforms of various kinds, especially anything that involves empowering parents.

So here we are. Rather than equity strategies aimed at raising the floor – for instance actually focusing on students who are furthest from opportunity, addressing the state’s inequitable school finance system that harms low-income communities, providing parents more choices, and, you know, actually holding schools accountable for educating students – the idea was/is instead that the courses are the problem. If the idea is that equity should be about giving more students a shot at opportunity – especially those denied it – then it’s hard to see this as progress absent a broader set of reforms.

Look, if you want more kids to be able to access math, see themselves as math people, take advanced classes, then move that 8th-grade number in the right direction. Dramatically. Those are kids the school system has had, most of them, since kindergarten – more than eight years. And there are plenty of schools that show it can be done. That’s equity – giving kids what they need to succeed. Instead, we’re going to argue about whether or not calculus is exclusionary. Of course it is, if you’re shutting the door to it for kids before they’re even out of middle school.

And that’s the problem with State Superintendent Lane’s quick capitulation to kill this story off during a political season.** Lane says the state will keep advanced classes and do some sort of pathways reform. That’s not a recipe for inclusion or equity. It’s a formula for tracking and making it harder, not easier, to see just how poorly some Virginia students are being served.

At the end of the day you either believe that as a general matter all kids – across income, race, ethnicity – can achieve if given access to good teachers with high expectations, adequately resourced schools, and a system that expects results as a matter of course not as an exception or you don’t. If you do, then you fight to make sure those conditions exist. If you don’t, then you fight to change the yardsticks, the rules of the game, and all that. This is about yardsticks.***

However you do math, if we don’t have that belief system in what’s possible at the core, the results will be inequitable and disappointing.****

Given how this is being put in a frame of equity and math equity, my fear is that when the dust settles, the lesson people will take away is that “equity” is a fraught issue rather than an understanding of the ample work Virginia has to do in order to create a more equitable school system that genuinely gives all students – especially Black, Hispanic, poor, and rural students who are too often an afterthought in a state that fetishizes its  “world class” suburban school systems – a shot.

Preparing a lot more students from more diverse backgrounds to be rocket scientists isn’t actually rocket science. We just keep coming up with new ways not to do it.

Andrew Rotherham is co-founder and partner at Bellwether Education, a national non-profit educational consulting organization. He writes the blog where this post first appeared. 

*I was on the commonwealth’s Board of Education from 2005-09 and the losing end of votes over a raft of issues about disaggregating by race for accountability.

**Despite Virginia’s history as being a tough off-year election for the party that won the White House in the previous year, in 2021 the governors race looked like a layup for Democrats. And it should be. The state is trending blue as its suburbs grow. A Republican front runner actually cheered on the January 6th insurrectionists. That kind of thing. Yet stunts like this are the kind of issue that could create a backlash and traction. Parents are already frustrated after a year of pandemic disruption. Some are frustrated with school boards they feel are more interested in renaming schools than educating kids in them. Debates about selective school admissions are sharp. And the current governor is seemingly more focused on making everyone forget he was once into racist cosplay and moonwalking than improving the schools. Seems combustible and probably why the walk back was so swift.

***That’s not a left-right thing as much as you might think. Plenty of “woke” lefties now tout ideas about race and math or precision that a few years ago would have been widely derided as racist. 

****It’s not my view, but for the thoughtful counterpoint on that belief system, it’s hard to do better than The Cult of Smart.

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17 responses to “Virginia’s Math Path Could Erode Equity”

  1. DJRippert Avatar

    According to this report, 12 of the top 20 school systems in Virginia are not suburban school systems.

    Makes one wonder about an “expert” who writes, ” … especially Black, Hispanic, poor, and rural students who are too often an afterthought in a state that fetishizes its “world class” suburban school systems – a shot.”

    Facts are stubborn things.

  2. James C. Sherlock Avatar
    James C. Sherlock

    Three comments
    – PK-3 is where kids’ math futures are built – positive or negative. Those four years get less attention in the math pathways discussions at VDOE and in the press than later grades .
    – the vast databases at VDOE about the public schools, their students and their teachers have gone unexamined, at least as far as the public can ascertain, in assessing new ideas.
    – there is no conversation at all about the burdens on teachers of any of the revisions coming out of VDOE. If you doubt it, use the “find” feature of your browser on this page and you will find every instance of the word “teacher” in the comments, not the article.

  3. James Wyatt Whitehead Avatar
    James Wyatt Whitehead

    Thank you Mr. Rotherham. That was a lot to take in and it certainly has me thinking. Parents have self interest in mind above all. What is good for my kid? I do think parents care about the collective good but their kid comes first. Anything that threatens long established norms is not going to go over well.

  4. Stephen Haner Avatar
    Stephen Haner

    A very useful piece backed up with plenty of references, including a gracious reference to one of the more cogent arguments on the other side.

    And DJ, I may see some of those locations as suburban where you do not (Goochland, Roanoke County), but the other thread in that list is college towns (Salem, C-ville, Montgomery), also not surprising.

    1. DJRippert Avatar

      I suppose we can debate the term “suburban”. Prior to you joining BR terms such as “suburban” were labeled “core, confusing words” by our then resident expert on settlement patterns … Ed Risse. Goochland County has a population density of 75 per sq mi although Goochland High School is listed as 38 miles from Richmond. Close enough to be an exurb but with a population density that sounds more rural than suburban.

      The point about university towns is well taken although that just reinforces my point that claiming Virginia ” … fetishizes its “world class” suburban school systems …” is pretty simplistic.

      Then, there’s West Point, which has been discussed on BR at length. And Wise County, which has also been discussed here. Perhaps James Lane ought to spend some of his valuable time investigating why those school systems are so effective before putting forth a lot more in the way of “reforms”.

  5. LarrytheG Avatar

    A thoughtful blog post with some cogent points without it be a grievance rant. Thank You!

    When we talk about grades and achievement , for each subject, it’s way more that a “grade” for the whole subject. There are many sub-skills that make up something like math.

    Take a look here:

    The NAEP Mathematics Achievement Levels by Grade

    So each child can be tested to see what achievement level they are at – at any given time – as they progress. They may even complete a “grade” but still have some deficiencies that need more work OR they could be ahead of the standards for the grade they just completed. Every child is different.

    Now the question is – what is the path , what is taught , how it is taught and how it is determined to be the best/right way to move kids through the achievement levels.

    Now if someone thinks this is something that anyone can figure out just by reading and understanding without much background , more power to you.

    There is a reason why there are degrees in Education – including Masters Degrees and PHDs.

    1. DJRippert Avatar

      ” … without it be(ing) a grievance rant.” Really?

      “A Republican front runner actually cheered on the January 6th insurrectionists. That kind of thing. Yet stunts like this are the kind of issue that could create a backlash and traction.”

      1. DJRippert Avatar

        As far as Amanda Chase being a “front runner” … that could only be ascertained by polling the delegates to the Republican “unassembled convention”. I am such a delegate and Amanda Chase is not a front runner in my mind.

      2. LarrytheG Avatar

        When talking about education – yes… a lot of grievance-laden rants in BR of late rather than just honest non-partisan discussion of public policy also without personal demonization of people in the roles.

        A child does not “fail” per se until K-12 is over. In between, it’s about how far they progress and how much additional help they might need in areas where they are not succeeding.

        One of the issues is – can they get the right kind of help at the time they are in need of it?

        This is beyond the student-teacher ratio. It’s about specialist like Title 1 or others.

        Student-teacher ratio does not tell you things like years of experience of the teachers – aggregate for the school. Are some schools staffed by highly-skilled veteran teachers while others are mostly entry-level newbies?

        Could you know more if you knew the salaries at the schools?

        Back to Amanda. She may not be a front-runner to you in NoVa but is she a front-runner in RoVa?

        Who do the voters in RoVa want for Gov?

        1. DJRippert Avatar

          What does Amanda Chase have to do with this article about Math Path? You claim the article is without a grievance rant when there is a irrelevant grievance rant about Amanda Chase. Apparently you are blind to grievance rants when the come from the left.

          1. LarrytheG Avatar

            grievance rants in BR about education… and more… got it?

            welcome relief from.

            I don’t see too many grievance rants from the left on most issues compared to Conservatives these days.

            Do you read BR of late?

  6. LarrytheG Avatar

    Here’s one of the NAEP assessment standards for math proficiency:

    ” NAEP Proficient
    Fourth-grade students performing at the NAEP Proficient level should consistently apply integrated procedural knowledge and conceptual understanding to problem solving in the five NAEP content areas.

    Fourth-graders performing at the NAEP Proficient level should be able to use whole numbers to estimate, compute, and determine whether results are reasonable. They should have a conceptual understanding of fractions and decimals; be able to solve real-world problems in all NAEP content areas; and use four-function calculators, rulers, and geometric shapes appropriately. Students performing at the NAEP Proficient level should employ problem-solving strategies such as identifying and using appropriate information. Their written solutions should be organized and presented both with supporting information and explanations of how they were achieved.”

    I’d ask how many readers here would know how to determine this with each kid. Is this something any old person or parent can do or is it a job for a skilled professional?

    How would one understand how the above might map into a math path , the prior and then the new proposed?

    My Point ? Do most folks really understand the Math Path issue or is it more of a simplistic viewpoint?

  7. Nancy Naive Avatar
    Nancy Naive

    And the beat goes on… y’all act like this is the first time in 200 years that public schools in the US are undergoing some tectonic shifts.

    We have 1200+ schools of education cranking out a lot of ideas on how to fix things. More than the rest of the world combined.

    1. James C. Sherlock Avatar
      James C. Sherlock

      “1200+ schools of education cranking out a lot of ideas” – and nearly all of them feature opinions crafted as studies rather than honest studies that inform opinions. Much the pity.

      1. Nancy Naive Avatar
        Nancy Naive

        Hmm, I suppose you feel that way about schools of medicine too? No wonder COVID Common Sense is NONE.

        1. James C. Sherlock Avatar
          James C. Sherlock

          You are slipping.

      2. LarrytheG Avatar

        unreal Jim. Do you REALLY feel this way? You’re denigrating virtually all schools and schools of education? This is what underlies a lot of your thinking in your blog posts? Geeze guy…

        Have you spent much time over at NAEP?

        or are they also a bunch of lefties spouting opinion?

        Come on guy. If you’re going to write -being principled is not a flaw.

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