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Does Advanced Math Discriminate?

Will Virginia's new plan promote achievement or mediocrity?

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Does advanced math discriminate? That’s what people in Virginia are asking after the state’s education department decided to reduce accelerated math programs in the name of modernization and equality.

The Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) recently announced it will cut accelerated math programs until 11th grade. This will “improve equity in mathematics learning opportunities,” according to the VDOE. The replacement program, called the Virginia Mathematics Pathways Initiative (VMPI), would take the material from advanced classes Algebra 1, Algebra 2, and Geometry and add the material to the standard math program. The VDOE says the change will modernize the math curriculum to focus on skills that will be needed in the future jobs market, like analyzing statistics.

Why is this decision so controversial? Some have suggested the change is motivated by the idea that students of some racial or social groups are less likely to get accepted into advanced classes.

Liberty Nation’s Pennel Bird described the situation that has some observers upset:

“No accelerated math until 11th grade, which leaves out high achieving kids who are doing well in math and may have future careers in math … What undergirds this is the idea that there are a fair amount of kids and often some minority kids who don’t do well in math. There could be a number of reasons for that … So rather than try to encourage [improvement] in some way, what they’re doing is saying that, because it looks like it besmirches the achievement of those groups [not in the advanced classes], we’re going to get rid of it.”

An official from the VMPI said the new curriculum “will be one of the most transformational things we can do in Virginia to advance equity” among students. One aim is to bring students to a more equal level of math performance – but will this improve life for those who struggle with math? Some are worried that it will just hinder advanced students.

One concerned parent from Loudoun County, Virginia, believes the VMPI will “lower standards for students in the name of equity.”

Asra Nomani, an author and former professor at Georgetown University, commented:

“Basically, Virginia has got this leadership that’s decided that any kind of advanced learning is [an injustice]. They have failed black and Hispanic students and so their solution is to bring those that are excelling down, instead of bringing our most challenged kids up … and this is the ultimate injustice …”

Virginia delegate candidate Mike Allers asserts that VDOE “didn’t level the playing field – they destroyed it.” Allers suggests that the decision to limit accelerated math programs is actually racist itself:

 “This decision from the VDOE stunts natural growth, choice, and progression for students and is incredibly demeaning, arrogant, and racist in assuming that children of color cannot reach advanced classes in math. The racial achievement gap in schools will never be closed if higher opportunities are not provided for all students …”

According to Allers, the decision will result in lower standards and “mediocrity” for all students, no matter their race or class.

Responding to the criticism, Virginia has said that it will use “differentiated” teaching to accommodate students of different levels in the same class by tailoring learning to the individual. “Differentiated instruction means providing instruction that is catered to the learning needs of each child (appropriate levels of challenge and academic rigor),” said VDOE spokesperson Charles Pyle.

Is this a realistic strategy that can keep students of all levels engaged? Will it help students of all backgrounds improve their math skills, or will it hinder those who have a natural gift for the subject? American students will be able to see what happens when the plan is put into place from 2023 onward.

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