OPINION: How San Francisco public schools got math instruction wrong

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One would hope the math education of our students would be built on a solid foundation of evidence.

That has not been our experience as parents and school committee membersin the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD), which is often singled out as an example of math success.

Educators five years ago praised the city’s so-called innovative move to delay Algebra I to ninth grade for all public school students, proclaiming “How one city got math right.”

San Francisco schools publicized the move as a good use of detracking, which puts all students on the same math course pathway regardless of their preparation and motivation.

The district trumpeted the new policy as a success, in press releases and presentations, claiming that Algebra I repeat rates had dropped from 40 percent to 8 percent and noting that more students were taking “advanced” classes than ever before.

That’s how SFUSD became the poster district for detracking math, with national organizations citing SFUSD as proof that this policy works. SFUSD’s claims of success, however, appear to misrepresent the facts.

Related: Is it time to stop segregating kids by ability in middle school math?

Course grade data actually shows that 100 out of 2,359 students (4.2 percent, not 40 percent as the district implied) failed Algebra I in 2013-14. This was the eighth grade year of the class of 2018, the last year before Algebra I was delayed. The class of 2019 took Algebra I in ninth grade — in 2015-16 — and 195 out of 2,957 students (6.6 percent) failed.

Whereis the so-called improvement? 

The district has since admitted that most of the 2013-14 failures occurred in an exit exam the class of 2018 had to pass that the class of 2019 did not. Thus, the repeat rate was reduced not primarily because of improved course performance, but because the exam requirement was removed.

Similarly, the “increase” in “advanced” courses seems to have occurred only because SFUSD defined as “advanced” a class that unsuccessfully combined the content of Algebra II and precalculus into one year, calling it a “compression” course; in fact, the University of California rejected this course as advanced because it covered so little precalculus content.

A recent study by Stanford researchers perpetuated this misinformation by also incorrectly using the compressed course enrollment to claim an increase in precalculus enrollment. 

Why does it matter that SFUSD’s claims are misleading?

First, because students need to take Algebra I in eighth grade to be on track for STEM careers, and second, because SFUSD’s misguided experiment has inspired other schools to copy it.

The STEM community and the United States Department of Education  have clearly explained that taking Algebra I in eighth grade is part of the five-year path to calculus that is optimal for a STEM career. Delaying Algebra I until ninth grade forces a compression of five years of math into four. Our California State Mathematics Standards state unequivocally that “all students who are ready for rigorous high school mathematics in eighth grade should take such courses (Algebra I or Mathematics I), and that all middle schools should offer this opportunity to their students.”

Unfortunately, many educators and districts across the state and the nation are succumbing to the narrative of delaying Algebra I for all their students, using SFUSD as their positive case study. For example, in a letter to families, Oakland Unified School District directly referenced SFUSD as justification for removing their math pathway options.

In addition, the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM), in their “Catalyzing Change” recommendations, along with the National Council of Supervisors of Mathematics (NCSM), in a position statement, cited SFUSD’s claimed success as justification for their recommendation to detrack math classes.

Students need to take Algebra I in eighth grade to be on track for STEM careers.

Since both these organizations are respected, many districts follow their recommendations without fact-checking their statements, showing us that SFUSD’s debunked success claims are still being used as foundational evidence supporting detracking.

The education departments of Ohio, Colorado and Oregon all reference the NCTM and/or the NCSM recommendations when discussing detracking math classes. Doing so — as the STEM community points out — diminishes student opportunities.

San Francisco’s misrepresented success claims also play a significant role in the just-adopted California Mathematics Framework, a document that provides math education guidance for the state’s nearly six million public school children. Though it makes no direct reference to SFUSD, it advocates a mirror image of SFUSD’s failed math program, guidance we’ve identified as originating from SFUSD’s claims.

The framework’s adoption has nationwide implications: What happens in education in California tends to spread across the country.

And yet the district’s success claims are still somehow accepted as truth, even though analysis notes that “gaps are widening” and “SFUSD is headed in the wrong direction on equity,” while a study shows fewer students reach AP Calculus than before.

The reality is that when a district detracks, removing pathways, many families are unwilling to sit idly by while their students’ STEM career dreams are compromised and resort to workarounds. Sadly, as we have pointed out, these workarounds consist of pay-to-play external courses, which are difficult for low-income families to afford. Those students are left with substandard alternatives, like taking two math classes simultaneously (not available in all high schools) and losing desirable electives in the process.

Rather than acknowledging the error of its policies, SFUSD has compounded the issue by taking measures that effectively thwarted workaround efforts. These measures appear to have broken education codes and led to a lawsuit which could have statewide implications.

Having experienced SFUSD’s detracking firsthand, we have one message: Don’t do this. SFUSD must admit their mistakes and move forward with accountability and transparency.

Rex Ridgeway is the grandfather of a student at Abraham Lincoln High School in SFUSD and is the 2023-24 president of its Parent Teacher Student Association.

David Margulies has a Ph.D. in Materials Science and is a former IBM research staff member who has co-authored 34 U.S. patents.

Maya Keshavan contributed to this piece. She is a parent to two SFUSD K-12 alumni and an electrical engineer. She served on their school’s PTA and Student Site Council.

This story about detracking math was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

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