Skip to main content

The importance of algebra: SF public schools’ ‘math pathway’ draws fire as state considers similar program

As the state of California considers a controversial revamp of how math is taught in public schools, a 2014 change in the math curriculum at the San Francisco Unified School District is drawing fresh scrutiny—and even though the district’s numbers show early signs the program has been a success, not everyone is convinced.

The debate comes amid a national firestorm over public education, with many parents still furious over pandemic policies that shuttered schools and culture warriors fighting anti-racism efforts and pushing to ban books they don’t like. The allegation that public schools have put social justice issues ahead of basics like math education has echoed loudly in San Francisco, where three school board members are now facing a recall election.

The biggest change in the SFUSD’s 2014 curriculum revamp was the creation of a new course, called Math 8, for 8th-graders, with the typical Algebra 1 course being pushed back to 9th grade. The goal was to “detrack” students and create “heterogeneous classrooms” throughout middle school, giving all elementary and middle school students the same basic understanding of math concepts, regardless of math achievement.

The state of California is proposing recommending a similar change in the math sequence for all public school students in the state, prompting San Franciscans to take a second look at how the local program has fared over the past seven years. 

Lizzy Hull Barnes, the math and computer science supervisor in the district’s curriculum office, said the district’s 2014 policy was pulled directly from state recommendations and was bolstered by studies showing that a strong, consistent base in math improves overall understanding and achievement of the subject. The district says its data shows that the program has been a success on three key measures: reducing the number of students who need to retake math classes, increasing enrollment in advanced math courses, and boosting participation of Black and Latino students in such classes.

But some parents and teachers worry that the policy makes higher-level math less accessible to most students by giving them just two years to complete the three-course prerequisite to enroll in AP Calculus their senior year, forcing students into “workarounds” like taking Algebra 1 and geometry in the same year, taking summer courses or settling for a class that condenses Algebra 2 and pre-calculus into one year. 

A group called Families for San Francisco, in a report released in October, also took issue with the district’s claims of success. Many in the tech industry, in particular, see the whole program as a dumbing-down of math education at a time when so-called STEM proficiency (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) is more important than ever.

“The emperor is wearing no clothes,” said Elizabeth Statmore, a math teacher at Lowell High School who helped write the report. “People in California don’t want us to base our math program for the entire state on fantasies. Wishful thinking is not a strategy.”

Statmore told the SF Standard that she opposed the changes from the start. After the new “math pathway” was implemented, she saw students working overtime in high school to make it to AP Calculus, or taking condensed summer or online courses to pass course entrance tests or fulfill prerequisites. Students who couldn’t afford classes outside of school were doubling up on math classes during the year, making their course load less manageable and cutting off opportunities to take electives. 

“It seemed inequitable to be asking my poor students to do something that affluent students were able to test out of and that no other district was doing,” Statmore said. 

The district’s first stated goal for the program was to reduce the number of students needing to retake Algebra 1, geometry or Algebra 2 by half as compared to June 2013 numbers—both for the entire SFUSD population and for each major ethnic group in the district. District data shows repeat rates for Algebra 1 dropped dramatically from 40% to 8% after the new program was implemented.

But that same year, the district also removed a policy that required students pass a state math exam to pass Algebra 1. The Families for San Francisco report argues that this fact makes the claim misleading. Hull Barnes said it is impossible to isolate the various factors that might have contributed to the improved pass rates. 

The second district goal outlined in 2014 was to increase the number of students taking and passing post-Algebra 2 courses by 10% by June of 2018. While enrollment in courses that come sequentially after Algebra 2 has gone up by about 2 percentage points across ethnicities, according to district data, the report argues that the condensed Algebra 2 and pre-calculus course that now follows geometry is not accurately characterized as an “advanced” course, because it is not considered a college-level course by the University of California system. 

Hull Barnes clarified that while it is not considered a college-level course nor is it “honors,” the district considers the condensed class “advanced” because it includes material that is more advanced than Algebra 2. 

The final district goal was to increase AP enrollment and pass rates of Latino and African American students by 20% in June of 2018. There is no publicly available district data showing enrollment specifically in AP courses, but the data does show an increase in Latino enrollment in “advanced” classes from 11.2% in 2016 to 13.5% in 2019. African American students’ enrollment in “advanced” classes increased at a similar rate, from 14% in 2016 to 16% in 2019. 

No pass rates for these classes or for AP math exams have been published so far, and Hull Barnes said the district has yet to go back and retrieve those numbers, the more recent of which may also have been affected by pandemic grading policy changes.  

While the district has not fully met what Hull Barnes says were “bold” goals, she is steadfast in her assertion that district data shows the program has been successful overall. Every year since the policy’s implementation in 2014, more students across all ethnic groups met the district’s 30-credit graduation requirements in math. And Hull Barnes sees the increase in enrollment in “advanced” math courses by a handful of percentage points as a success.

Hull Barnes and the district policy is supported by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, a nationwide education organization. NCTM President Trena Wilkerson said her organization supports the practice of “detracking” students and even used SFUSD’s program as a case study in its 2018 report “Catalyzing Change in High School Mathematics.”

While Wilkerson said she hasn’t personally looked into the district’s data, early signs that the program offers rigorous standards and is bringing more marginalized and traditionally underrepresented students into advanced classrooms are positive. 

“It’s not something that can happen overnight,” Wilkerson said. 

Rex Ridgeway, a trained mathematician and a critic of the policy whose granddaughter is a 9th grader at Lincoln High School, said the program may have achieved one goal—stabilizing math test scores or graduation rates across the district. But he says it’s failing to prepare students like his granddaughter for a future in STEM. 

Both camps agree that the goal to make access to high-level math courses more equitable is a worthy one. But how to get there remains up for debate. 

In Statmore’s ideal world, math reforms should be bottom-up, with greater emphasis on math in early education through a curriculum that doesn’t drill students on problems, but introduces math into play and gets students curious about numbers. But as long as the current system remains, Statmore says students should be offered personalized pathways and be allowed, at any grade in middle or high school, to move up to a more demanding course. Ridgeway agrees and wants to see kids who are interested in pursuing math at a higher level given that opportunity. 

“I’m all for getting everyone at the starting line, but when the gun goes off, some people are going to be faster,” Ridgeway said. 

In response to concerns about equity, Hull Barnes noted that every school site in the district does offer an organic path to AP Calculus, like allowing 9th grade students to take both Algebra 1 and geometry at the same time, enroll in a compressed Algebra 2 and pre-calculus course or to take a district-run summer geometry course to be on track to take AP Calculus by senior year. 

Is calculus even a worthwhile goal for high schoolers? The two camps agree it can depend on the student. But Hull Barnes says she’s listening to researchers who are changing their tune and moving away from calculus as a prerequisite for college success, and who drove the University of California system to release a statement saying its admissions officers won’t penalize students who do not enroll in calculus. 

But University of California, Davis, computer science professor Norm Matloff says it doesn’t matter what college admissions policies are—admissions officers will always be inclined to admit more students who have taken calculus since it is universally seen as the most demanding high school math course. 

The new state proposal would also create a singular math track through middle school before offering Algebra 1 in 9th grade and then allowing students to accelerate their learning throughout high school.

In an interview with KQED on Tuesday, one of the authors of the state’s recommendations, Jo Boaler, said the state is not using San Francisco’s program as the basis for its recommendation that schools alter their math pathways. 

Rather, Boaler said, the authors are basing their recommendations on evidence from school districts across the state. Still, San Francisco is the only local district that’s implemented a similar program, so it will be a point of reference as the state considers its changes, Hull Barnes said. Boaler declined an interview request.

Families For San Francisco co-founder and Executive Director Patrick Wolff, a chess grandmaster and hedge fund founder who has two kids at local schools, said the group wants to have a serious conversation with the district about its success metrics and thoroughly examine the effectiveness of the policy, not just for the sake of the state policy, but also for the city’s current and future students. 

“What happens here matters, and it matters to represent it accurately and fairly,” Wolff said. 

This version corrects the name of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.

Filed Under