Cancel culture has come for calculus. After decades of student activism and the work of educator-activists dedicated to raising academic rigor, their hard-fought battles have resulted in a greater cross-section of students having access to Advanced Placement courses. However, officials in several states have been considering changes to the curriculum that represent a huge step backwards: discouraging students from taking advanced math courses.
While proposals have been floated in several states, California has moved the closest towards adopting new standards discouraging the teaching of advanced mathematics, particularly the instruction of high school calculus. The document contends, among other things, that teaching high school students calculus is not a realistic goal. It is ironic that the California state board of education seems to be unaware of California educational history. This is apparently the case considering that the assertions and assumptions made by the 2021 framework have been disproved by the success of the Escalante Math Program in the 1980s.
This year, the California Department of Education unveiled a new framework that, among other things, asserts that high school students should not be taking calculus. The new proposal published on the California DOE website states on page seven of its eighth chapter:
“Many students, parents, and teachers encourage acceleration in grade eight (or sooner in some cases) because of an incorrect conclusion that Calculus is an important high-school goal.”
The Department goes on to describe the push to calculus in twelfth-grade as “misguided” and that the necessity of completion of Algebra I at the eighth-grade level to reach a high school calculus class as a “false belief.”
One of the takeaways of the document is that “The rapid expansion of calculus, particularly at the expense of other important mathematics, reflects troubling realities of college admission…” The contributors posit that alternative pathways are projected to “…result in much more diverse participation in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) pathways…” The authors of the manifesto clearly view teaching calculus in high school as an unequivocally bad thing, and claim that the “traditional calculus pathway” is one that “…results in highly unequal opportunities-and to very inequitable outcomes- for California students.”
Yet Jaime Escalante, an immigrant from Bolivia whose efforts in the classroom were portrayed in the film Stand and Deliver, built a calculus program in inner-city East Los Angeles that prepared students for academic and career success. Escalante compensated for his students’ initial lack of earlier preparation by establishing a seven-week accelerated math summer program at East Los Angeles College. With the support of Garfield principal and U.S. Army veteran Henry Gradillas, Escalante convinced the junior high schools in the area to offer algebra classes in the eighth and ninth grades, ensuring that students would be up to speed. The Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), employed a policy of academic tracking that segregated students who were considered to be “college-bound” versus “non-college-bound.”
Academic tracking has a history of being racially exclusionary, particularly towards Latino and African-American students. Escalante opposed academic tracking would take any student who wished to enroll in his classes. Gradillas notes the following in his book Standing and Delivering: What The Movie Didn’t Tell:
“AP success at Garfield was a great example of Escalante’s model of pulling kids up. When barrio kids saw their cousins and neighbors graduating from high school with at least a semester’s worth of college credit, and they saw them going to schools like MIT, Stanford, Yale, and USC on full scholarships, and they realized that those kids were a lot like they were, they wanted a piece of the action”(Gradillas 48).
The 2021 proposal’s introduction features a declaration straight out of Kurt Vonnegut’s Harrison Bergeron:
“All students deserve powerful mathematics; we reject ideas of natural gifts and talents.”
Rather than erase the idea of talent, Escalante’s approach sought to cultivate the talent of students who had been left behind by the existing educational regimen. Gradillas writes, “AP was the perfect program for some of our bright kids whose talents had not been identified in tests.” The former principal also argues in favor of AP coursework as a unifying force, stating that “…parents, students, teachers, and administrators are all on the same side.”
The manifesto also features the following statements:
“An important goal of this framework is to replace ideas of innate mathematics ‘talent’ and ‘giftedness’ with the recognition that every student is on a growth pathway.”
20 U.S. Code 7801 defines gifted and talented in the context of education as “students, children, or youth who give evidence of high achievement capability in areas such as intellectual, creative, artistic, or leadership capacity, or in specific academic fields, and who need services or activities not ordinarily provided by the school in order to fully develop those capabilities.” Rather than lifting students up, the establishment’s manifesto calls for teaching down.
Another notable passage raises the issue of being inclusive of historically marginalized communities:
“Teachers can support discussions that center mathematical reasoning rather than issues of status and bias by intentionally defining what it means to do and learn mathematics together in ways that include and highlight the languages, identities, and practices of historically marginalized communities.”
As you might expect, the terms “Brown” and “Latinx” both surface in the document.
One would be hard-pressed to dispute the notion that throughout the history of California, Latinos, particularly Mexican-Americans, have been historically marginalized and discriminated against. One of the defining events of Chicano Movement, a civil rights movement led by Americans of Mexican descent, were the East L.A. walkouts that took place in March 1968. The walkouts were led by Chicano student activists dissatisfied with, among other inequities, the subpar quality of education in LAUSD. Gradillas himself mentions the walkouts, explaining in 1968, “Kids were asking for a better education and Chicano activists had made specific demands.”
It is also difficult to contest the significance of the work of Gradillas, a Mexican-American, and Jaime Escalante, an immigrant from Bolivia, in their empowerment of the historically disadvantaged, predominantly Latino residents of East Los Angeles. For a framework that is supposedly all about diversity, inclusion, identities, and recognition, the State Board of Education is doing Californians a disservice by ignoring Escalante’s and Gradillas’ contributions and accomplishments towards the education of marginalized communities.
Jerry Jesness’ 2002 article explores the decline of Garfield’s math program: after Gradillas left the school to complete his doctorate, several subsequent administrators were not nearly as supportive of Escalante’s program. Rather than return to Garfield, when Gradillas completed his doctorate, he was assigned by LAUSD to oversee asbestos removal.
Teachers’ unions took issue with the number of students in Escalante’s classes. A Garfield student interviewed for a documentary stated: “The union [hierarchy] used its organizing power to get [the] votes to oust Escalante as math department chairman. Escalante then quit.” Escalante left Garfield High School to teach in Sacramento before moving back to Bolivia. Following the departure of Escalante and two of his proteges, there was a “sevenfold drop” in Garfield AP students passing the Calculus exam.
While the politics of LAUSD may have hampered the long-term reach of the Escalante Math Program, the success of its alumni cannot be disputed. Several of his alums became electrical engineers, attorneys, civil engineers, and mathematics professors among other occupations. One of his students was the first Garfield High School graduate to be accepted to MIT, another attained an internship at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Jesness writes that at the national level, Escalante’s program has been credited with increasing the popularity of AP classes. In a matter of four decades, Escalante’s methods went from praised to forgotten, and California’s school authorities are now promoting the abolition of high school calculus.
A little over ten years ago, American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten released a statement stressing the importance of maintaining America’s competitiveness in the world: “President Obama’s goal to recruit 10,000 new science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) teachers over the next two years is an important step toward preparing students to enter the global knowledge economy.”
The union head also noted that “Any good recruitment and retention effort, including this new STEM program, must be implemented carefully and developed at the local school-district level—with teachers and administrators working together to get the details right for their students and to ensure that it recognizes and encourages all teachers.”
It’s notable that the Escalante Math Program began its existence roughly a decade and a half before the STEM acronym was even coined. Is a statewide framework opposing high school calculus that denies the existence of gifted students a better approach than a local high school’s partnership with a community college to instruct STEM subjects?
Weingarten is a well known ally of the Biden administration, and it has been suggested that Biden is using California as a model for his policy agenda. Some say that California is America’s future-but is this the California of Jaime Escalante and Dr. Henry Gradillas, or California’s anti-calculus educational establishment?
The 2021 framework is set to be voted on this November by California’s State Board of Education. As America’s global competitive edge with rising totalitarian powers like Communist China increasingly depends on student success in STEM, programs like Escalante’s should be embraced, not forgotten.