California wants teachers to violate education’s Hippocratic Oath

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If there’s one principle that should be a fixed star in America’s schools, it’s that educators should be expected to do all they can to help each student develop their gifts and fulfill their potential. This should serve as education’s version of medicine’s Hippocratic Oath.

Regrettably, California has decided to push educators to violate that oath.

In a well-meaning but hugely misguided effort to promote equity, the state’s Instructional Quality Commission earlier this year adopted a new Mathematics Framework that urges schools to do away with accelerated math programs in order to promote “heterogeneous grouping” of students.

The framework’s authors assert that mathematics has a “history of exclusion and filtering, rather than inclusion and welcoming,” and that California must respond with “a coordinated approach” that puts an end to advanced math in grades K-10. With remarkable chutzpah, they insist that this is actually doing math “high achievers” a favor, as they’ll now be able to “take work to deeper levels rather than speed ahead with superficial understanding of content, and learn to appreciate the beauty of mathematics.”

Dismissing those who fear their approach will stymie students who have a particular aptitude for math, the framework flatly posits: “We reject ideas of natural gifts and talents.”  

The pursuit of equal educational opportunity for all is a crucial goal. Of course, too many children have been historically ill-served in our schools and, of course, too many of these children have been living in poverty, Black, or English language learners. But this is not the answer.

While seeking to meet the needs of each learner may be wholly aspirational, it provides a moral compass for the profession and a clear basis for explaining exactly why it’s a moral failure when some kids get systematically short-changed. And, while we’re miles from where we need to be, this goal has allowed schools to become far more attuned to the varied needs of students today than they were a generation ago.

Now, defenders of the framework point to some evidence to support their stance. For instance, in the past couple years, the San Francisco Unified School District implemented a high school model that aligns with the framework. San Francisco’s pilot approach, staffed by highly-regarded educators supported by training, has yielded some potentially promising preliminary results. The district reduced the number of students failing math and has maintained participation in Advanced Placement calculus.

The results, however, do not speak to how much math students are actually learning. Nor do they make clear how this approach will play out in communities that lack San Francisco’s advantages.

California would be well-served by an evidence-based approach that allows students to move across opportunity pathways as they grow and mature in their mathematical performance. While we seek more robust evidence on how best to do that, California should reconsider its present course. For one thing, the framework will give millions of students less opportunity to lay a foundation for mathematics mastery in college and beyond.

The moment when our national well-being rests on the science that yielded breakthrough COVID vaccines is truly an odd one to make it harder for mathematically talented students to cultivate their gifts.

Perhaps more to the point, this push for equity seems likely to fail on its own terms. After all, if schools stifle enthusiastic math learners or fail to support them, affluent families will move their children to private schools or else pony up for tutors, enrichment programs, and online courses. It is low-income students with a passion for math who won’t have these options and who will now also lack school-based opportunities. We can and must do more to address these opportunity gaps in the early grades, so that students are prepared for more rigorous learning in the high school years. But the framework’s assault on accelerated math is the wrong way to do that.   

Let’s make this simpler. Imagine you’re tasked with coaching a youth team populated with both all-stars and novices. Every player has some ability, but some are taller or faster or bigger or more talented than others. Would you deny the existence of these differences? If an accomplished player asked to show up early for some intensive coaching, should you say, “I’m sorry, but it would be unfair to help you get further ahead of your teammates?”

Or should the response be, “I’m happy to do that, and I’m also going to make sure your teammates all know they’re welcome to participate in the extra workouts if they wish.” This second option is the better one. It entails making accelerated options more available and accessible, not trying to close them off. The coach’s charge should be to maximize opportunities for individual growth and development, not to standardize performance by constraining practice time.

Equal is not always better. Children are blessed with different gifts and interests, and the mission of schools is to help each child flourish. At least, we suspect that’s what Hippocrates would say.

Frederick M. Hess is director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

William F. Tate IV is the provost and executive vice president of academic affairs at the University of South Carolina and the next president of Louisiana State University.

Tags advanced math Black students California Education in America Education in California Educational inequality Equity exclusion heterogeneous grouping Hippocratic Oath Mathematics Mathematics education money in education opportunity poor students

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