California math framework would discourage calculus, potentially hurt students' college admissions chances

A proposed mathematics framework would de-emphasize calculus and would end advanced math classes before 11th grade.

Several top colleges require, or strongly recommend, that applicants have taken calculus by the time they finish high school.

California educators are considering a new mathematics instruction framework that purposefully de-emphasizes calculus, though calculus is required or heavily encouraged for applicants to several of the nation’s top colleges and universities. The framework, which is still under consideration, proposes eliminating advanced math classes in middle school and eliminating a “push to calculus in grade twelve,” which it calls “misguided.”

The framework prioritizes equity and instructs teachers to “teach toward social justice.” It argues against beginning advanced math classes in middle school, saying, “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.”

This setup would “enable all students to engage in a common pathway in the first two years of high school,” thus eliminating advanced classes prior to junior year. Calculus could be a possible option in 11th or 12th grade, but there would be no path created intentionally to lead to calculus.

Virginia is considering a similar framework, which would abolish advanced math courses before the 11th grade. Virginia’s draft framework also emphasizes equity, much like California’s. 

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Though some K-12 leaders want to deemphasize calculus, several top colleges either recommend or require a student to take calculus in high school. MIT, California Institute of Technology, and Stevens Institute of Technology all require calculus for admission. So does Cornell Engineering, both Northwestern University’s Integrative Science Program and its Mathematical Methods in the Social Sciences Program, Princeton University’s engineering track, Olin College of Engineering, and Duke University’s Pratt School of Engineering. Most of Carnegie Mellon University’s undergraduate schools require high school calculus for admissions. 

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute recommends a year of calculus. The University of Pennsylvania’s engineering school says, “We would like to see…strong preparation in physics and mathematics, particularly calculus.”  

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Calculus is not a prerequisite for many educational and career paths, but it can be nearly impossible to avoid for anyone who wants to pursue a professional STEM career. EdWeek reports that only 15 percent of U.S. high schoolers take a calculus class. Not every high schooler has the opportunity to do so: According to Department of Education data, only 50.4 percent of U.S. high schools offer a course in the subject; California is slightly below the norm at 45.7 percent. (Students may have access to dual enrollment programs that allow them to take a course at a local college, though it is unclear how many of those programs offer calculus classes and how many students have the opportunity to participate.)

The framework also has implications for teachers: It instructs them to "teach toward social justice" and advises that they "share with students examples of women and people of color who are successful mathematicians," because "mathematics has developed in such exclusive and elitist ways."

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @AngelaLMorabito