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What are the ‘math wars’ over algebra in SF schools really about?

A math teacher works with a student at Willie L. Brown Jr. Middle School in 2020. | Lea Suzuki/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images

There are two types of people in this world: those who are invested in the “math wars,” and those who wonder why they ever needed to factor polynomials in Algebra 1 in the first place. 

Algebra has an undeserved reputation for pointlessness, but the basics of it are fundamental to cooking, managing finances and other elements of everyday life. To graduate high school, all California students need to complete two math classes, starting with Algebra 1 before moving onto Algebra 2, geometry, and—if they’re advanced—maybe even precalculus and calculus. 

But who takes which classes, and when, has long been up for debate—for decades. Think of it as solving for x, where x is a quality education for all.

These days, Algebra 1 is at the center of San Francisco’s latest math war. Last week, a group of parents sued the San Francisco Unified School District to compel it to do two things. The lawsuit seeks to undo a 2014 policy removing the class from middle school, done to keep students of different abilities together and known as “detracking,” and plaintiffs want the district to stop forcing students to retake the course if already taken through their own means. 

“The math programs promoted by SFUSD’s policies and practices hobble children whose academic growth in mathematics outpaces that of their peers, create barriers which prevent students from excelling in mathematics, and make it nearly impossible for any student to attain access to high school Calculus,” the lawsuit read. 

San Francisco’s math sequencing was also at the center of a Stanford University study released last week showing some tradeoffs in delaying Algebra 1 to ninth grade. The district did, however, also see some gains in the number of math classes taken.

Tensions have also been building over California’s math framework. It may sound a bit trivial or obsessive, but there’s more to this lawsuit and to this campaign.

The Racial Calculus of Math

Some observers say the focus on one class misses deeper issues. They want to encourage the kind of math that students engage with in ways that make them college-ready and emphasize the actual content of the lessons. 

Ji Yun Son, a psychology professor at Cal State Los Angeles who specializes in how people learn, considers herself an anger translator between the opposite sides of the math wars. Battles flare up over this or that subject matter, but the same themes tend to repeat themselves. 

“You never know what the math wars are going to be about, but you know they’re coming,” Son told The Standard. “People are really looking at some deep problems, and they’re looking at it from different vantage points. Anyone who tells you one class that solves it is missing some nuance.”

So why is Algebra 1 the sticking point? 

Taking and passing it early on puts students on track to complete calculus by the time they graduate. This is seen as advantageous in college admissions, particularly for high-earning STEM fields—though admissions officers do not agree it limits college options

But due to inequities in the state’s school system, not all students are ready to take algebra by eighth grade. In San Francisco, that dilemma predominantly affects Black and Latino students, while white and Asian students are more often steered toward accelerated math courses like precalculus. 

Consequently, calculus has been de-emphasized in the curriculum, much to the dismay of critics who lament a lack of rigor. At the same time, the University of California system allows other types of math classes, like statistics and data science, to be taken in place of Algebra 2, so mastering dreaded quadratic equations may no longer be crucial to a liberal arts education.

A teacher points to a projection of graphs on a screen, explaining slope, in front of students in a classroom.
Math teacher Dayna Soares reviews linear equations, slopes and reciprocals during her Algebra II class at Mission High School. | Lea Suzuki/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images

High school seniors who take math are more likely to enroll in a four-year college, a recent study of Los Angeles schools showed. But algebra is also the most-failed class in the country, with low proficiency rates among California students who repeat the class, whether in middle or high school.

Son believes the answer is simple: Encourage students to take more math, any math, and require more than two classes to graduate high school. More students are taking statistical and data science classes, but do ultimately need a basic understanding of algebra that’s hard to connect to at the time most students are required to take the class. 

“These things are really related, but nobody points that out when you’re taking Algebra 1, which is a real tragedy and a missed opportunity,” Son said. “That’s the exact time when students are like, ‘Why am I learning this?’” 

The Multi-Headed Hydra

Thomas Dee, a co-author of the Stanford study on San Francisco’s math sequencing, says the results show a tradeoff to fitting five years of math into four years. 

White and Asian students still enrolled in precalculus at rates two to four times higher than their Black and Hispanic peers before and after the 2014 reform, according to the study. But the district saw a 55% increase in Black students taking precalculus in high school from the graduating class of 2018 to 2019, which was the first cohort under the reform. The study included SFUSD’s "compression" class combining Algebra II and precalculus, which is not classified as the latter by the state’s higher education system.

“We clearly have not realized our aspirations,” Dee said of progress in math outcomes. “That should motivate fundamental reengagement about why that might be so. We’re so focused on whether algebra is in eighth or ninth grade, we’ve lost sight of the actual academic and intellectual content that’s in those courses.”  

San Francisco school officials said the district would work with Stanford to improve its math programming. 

Rori Abernethy, a math teacher at James Denman Middle School, said the issue isn’t with eighth-grade algebra, but with “tracking.” That’s the educational policy of separating students by achievement at young ages, which can put late bloomers at an almost insurmountable disadvantage and often takes on an uncomfortable racial cast. 

“There’s nobody against doing [eighth grade algebra] in a way that’s not tracking,” Abernethy told The Standard. “It would be straight-up segregation in our middle schools. The money you’re spending on this lawsuit could have gone toward fixing the problem. They didn’t actually work with anyone in the system.” 

Herbie Walker, president of the Western Association for College Admission Counseling, added that while STEM departments look for students who have successfully completed precalculus or higher, there are a finite number of teachers who can teach beyond that level.

Once students get to college, another issue emerges. It can get hard to handle the load of college coursework and that may lead to a drop-off in the pursuit of math and engineering degrees. Walker sees a need for math support both for high school and college students to keep progressing.

“More options are better,” Walker said. “That could be opened up by leveraging more classes being more open to credits from other universities, so students do have another opportunity.”

At the end of the day, everyone wants as many students to be as set up for success in college as possible.  

“Sorting through these issues is like fighting a multi-headed hydra,” Dee said. “It touches on your fondest wishes and deepest concerns for your child.”

Update: This story has been updated to provide greater context on San Francisco Unified School District's 2014 reform study.