San Francisco may reverse math policy designed to improve equity after research showed it didn't work

(AP Photo/LM Otero, File)

I’ve written about this topic several times but the story continues to plod along through the San Francisco bureaucracy. Back in 2014 the city adopted a new and supposedly more equitable approach to math. The problem was that minority students were lagging white (and Asian) students in math. Prior to 2014 students were sent on one of two tracks. And advanced math track had students taking Algebra I in 8th grade while a slower track had other students waiting until the freshman year of high school to take that class. It was a slight difference but it meant that some kids were getting to Calculus in their senior year, giving them a leg up when applying to college. That was deemed inequitable.


So the new curriculum put in place in 2014 ended tracking and required that all students wait until 9th grade to take Algebra I. The idea was that by keeping students together longer, usually through 10th grade, the lower performing students would do better on math proficiency tests. And San Francisco went even further by forcing students who took Algebra I in private courses prior to high school to repeat the course anyway unless they could pass a difficult test to get out of it.

But there’s been an increasing amount of evidence that this de-tracking plan for math didn’t work. A group of academics at Stanford looked at the results and found the achievement gaps didn’t change.

A much-debated change to math course sequencing in the San Francisco schools designed to reduce racial inequities has increased Black students’ access to some higher-level courses.

But racial inequities at the most advanced levels of high school math remain largely unchanged, according to a new analysis released March 20…

“It was really the sense that outside commentators and the district weren’t fundamentally agreeing about what actually happened that motivated [this study],” said Thomas Dee, a professor at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Education and one of the paper’s authors…

“Closing those racial and ethnic gaps in advanced math coursetaking was a central stated goal of this reform. And it seems pretty clear that in that regard, it failed on its own terms,” Dee said.


To be blunt, delaying Algebra I meant that students overall took fewer AP math classes. The biggest drop was among Asian students. The researchers concluded that “delaying Algebra I until ninth grade made it difficult for some students to complete the sequence of course prerequisites that would position them to take AP Calculus.”

This is exactly what parents opposed the change had warned would happen. They have now sued the school district to demand a return to 8th grade Algebra I for students who can manage it. And, with no evidence that the equity plan accomplished much, the district is now considering it.

The battle boiled over into a lawsuit filed by a group of San Francisco parents in March who demanded officials put Algebra I back into middle schools and stop forcing students to retake the course in ninth grade if they have already passed it in a private school or through other providers prior to entering high school…

Superintendent Matt Wayne told The Chronicle in an exclusive interview that the district will be looking closely at math instruction and course sequencing in the months ahead. A progress report to the board is expected on May 23…

“I have heard and the evidence supports the fact we are not accelerating as many students as we want and can and too many are not not meeting standards,” Wayne said. “We have a lot of work to do in this area.”


You may have noticed there’s no commitment in those statements to actually reversing course on this turkey of a policy. That’s likely because doing so will anger the progressives who pushed for the equity plan in the first place. Still, it’s significant that the superintendent has acknowledged the plan isn’t working, though this acknowledgement could have come a lot sooner. The evidence that de-tracking wasn’t working has been out there for a long time. I wrote about it more than a year ago, long before the Stanford study came out. But no one in SF is ever eager to go against anything that promises equity so it’s going to take a while to reverse course. The best case here is that the city could reverse course by the start of the next academic year, in 2024.

The bottom line is that holding back the high achievers harms them and doesn’t do much for the low achievers. It would be interesting to see what the results would be if the district instead forced all students to take Algebra I in 8th grade. Raising the bar instead of lowering it might do more to help students on the low end. Not all of them of course, but some of them.

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