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Ep 12. California's math controversy with Jelani Nelson Part II

This transcript was created with speech-to-text software.  It was reviewed before posting, but may contain errors. Credit to Jazmin Boisclair.

You can listen to the episode here: Chalk & Talk Podcast.

Ep 12. California's math controversy with Jelani Nelson Part II

[00:00:00] Anna Stokke: Welcome to Chalk and Talk, a podcast about education and math. I'm Anna Stokke, a math professor and your host.

[00:00:15] Jelani Nelson: I think that we need evidence-backed approaches with like accountability measures in place, when we roll out these kinds of changes.  We shouldn't keep experimenting in school districts and experimenting on kids and possibly hurting kids in the process. 

[00:00:35] Anna Stokke: You are listening to episode 12 of Chalk and Talk. That was Berkeley professor Dr. Jelani Nelson talking about the California Math Framework. This is the second episode of a special two-part series featuring Dr. Nelson focused on California's math controversy. Since I've departed slightly from my regular schedule, I'd like to let you know that my next episode will be published on July 28th.


I was delighted to continue my conversation with Dr. Nelson for this episode. He is an award-winning professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at UC Berkeley. He's also a research scientist for Google and a social entrepreneur. Dr. Nelson and other STEM leaders have publicly raised concerns about the proposed California math framework. In this episode, we discuss a widely debated issue whether students should have the option of accelerating in math in middle school.

First, I asked Jelani to tell us about AddisCoder, which is a nonprofit organization that he founded to teach coding to high school students in Ethiopia. Jelani gives us his thoughts on acceleration, and we talk about the impact of acceleration reforms in San Francisco. We discuss the makeup of the CMF writing team citation misrepresentation in the CMF, among other important topics.

In the show notes, you will find a link to a resource page, which provides links to the open letters and other relevant information discussed in both episodes. Jelanii s extremely passionate, knowledgeable, and altruistic. I really enjoyed my conversation with him and I hope you do too. Now, without further ado, let's get started. 

Welcome back, Jelani!

[00:02:26] Jelani Nelson: Thank you.

[00:02:27] Anna Stokke: Let's first talk a bit about some of your humanitarian work. So you founded a nonprofit program called  AddisCoder. Can you tell us a bit about that?

[00:02:38] Jelani Nelson: I started that in 2011. So I was finishing my Ph.D. I was at MIT, and you know, I'm half Ethiopian, so I was planning to go to Ethiopia that summer to just hang out with some of my cousins and uncles and aunts, well uncles and other friends. And at some point I thought to myself, like, while I'm there, why don't I just do something on the side, you know, some kind of like volunteer activity at some point know what I landed on at the end is “I'll, I'll make a high school program.”

 I'm an algorithmist, so it's not, I didn't just wanna teach like coding. I wanted to teach algorithms. Algorithms are just procedures for how to solve problems, okay? So it's more, it's more mathematical also. But I had to teach some programming as well just to get to the algorithms.

And I, you know, I got the university there, Addis Ababa Institute of Technology, to let me use their facilities. They gave me a classroom. They gave me their computer lab to use for free. People helped me advertise the course to get kids to sign up, high school kids. And I had 80-something kids that, that first batch in 2011. Class was Monday through Friday, two and a half hours a day for a month. 

And the kids were, you know, the kids were really excited and, and loved the material, enthusiastic. And you know, many of them ended up staying in Ethiopia for college. Some of them wanted to study abroad, and some did. From that batch. You know, we had two of those kids end up going to MIT, three going to Princeton, two going to Trinity College, a couple one, one or two to Columbia, NYU, Abu Dhabi I remember. 

And then now if I look at them, you know, this is now 12 years into the future, six of them, of those students ended up entering Ph.D. programs later. One has already finished his Ph.D. and he's a postdoc in math. some of them also decided to work in tech. Google, Microsoft one interned at Apple, at Facebook, AMD, et cetera.

So, you know, it was a good experience that students learned a lot from it and it got them excited to go into computer science. And starting from 2016, I co-organized the program with an organization in Ethiopia called the Meles Zenawi Foundation. Meles Zenawi was a prime minister of Ethiopia from the early nineties until he passed away.

I'm forgetting the year that he passed away, 2012 or 13. But yeah, he was, he was the prime minister for a while. we organized the program together, and the real, the way that came about actually was in the first edition of the program. The students were great.

Okay, and it was a free program. But what I noticed is a lot of the kids who signed up were from private schools. Not all of them, but like many of them private school kids were, disproportionately there. And that bothered me because it's a free program, it's a free opportunity. Why aren't the kids in public school taking advantage of it?

So I then, you know, recruited some people to go to public schools and just start putting posters on the walls to advertise. You know, actually, I remember one of the, one of the people who was doing this for me, a school administrator came and talked to her and took all the posters down and then, you know, she said, “What's wrong?”

And the administrator said, “This is not a program that's, you know, officially approved by the Ministry of Education, so we can't allow you to advertise it, you know, in the schools.” And you know, when I heard that, I thought, “Oh yes, the Ministry of Education. This is actually, you know, a great opportunity. Why don't I? Why don't I partner with the Ministry of Education?”

Unlike the US, I don't know how Canada is, but in the US, things are very fragmented, where like every school district can almost do like what they want, okay? So they can adopt whatever textbooks they want. the course offerings are decided at a school district level. But in Ethiopia, Ethiopia's a big country.

It's more than 110 million people. It's very centralized. There's a federal Ministry of Education and they decide the textbooks for the whole country. Every 10th grader in Ethiopia is using the same exact textbook math textbook, okay. So there's no, there are no like school districts. It's a, there's a unified curriculum.

They also have national exams at, back then they had national exams at the end of eighth grade, 10th grade, and 12th grade. So like they knew who was performing well in math courses, because there was like one exam, standard exam that everyone was taking. So I thought, “oh, why don't I just approach the Ministry of Education and work with them and have them help me recruit public school kids to my program.”

Anyway, I tried to do that and I think my, my main problem back then was, I just didn't know enough people in the Ministry of Education. I didn't know anyone in the Ministry of Education, so I was like, it's a big organization. I didn't even know where to start and I wasn't really getting anywhere.

So then I thought, I need, I, you know, instead of me trying to work directly with the government, why, why don't I work with an Ethiopian organization that has government connections? So I talked to very different, I've talked to a few different people. Eventually, I was introduced to the daughter of the late Prime Minister.

Her name is Semhal Melles, and, you know, she was very excited. I told her my, my plan. I was like, you know, I, “I really wanna make sure public school kids are taking advantage of this.” She said, “oh, why do you only want public school kids from the capital city? Why don't you get public school kids from the whole country?”

And I thought, “Well, I mean, that would be great, except the, the course is in the capital. If we get kids from outside the capital like they need a place to stay, who's gonna feed them?” You know, all this other stuff. And she said, “Don't worry about that. You know, we have funding in our organization. 

We can take care of those expenses and we'll work with the Ministry of Education to recruit students who are really interested in math from across the country.” And that's what we did. We did it in 2016. Less than 10% of our kids were from the capital, and almost all of them were from public schools.

We repeated again in 2018. We doubled the size of the program, almost all from public schools. We did it again in 2019. And then we had, we, we paused because of Covid. And then there was some, you know, there, there was a, actually a kind of civil war in Ethiopia, unfortunately. So we had to pause last year as well.

We were gonna resume last year, but we had to delay. We're running again. We're gonna run again this summer. I'm very excited because now we're working directly with the Ministry of Education and the, the campus they gave us to run our program is actually the government boarding school that my mother attended from kindergarten to 11th grade.

So I now get to teach in the school that my mother where my mother learned. And we also now have a program in Jamaica which we started last year. And that was really fun and I think really impactful. And we're, the second edition is starting on Monday and the teaching assistants have already arrived in Jamaica.

Well, two of them are Jamaican. So they were already in Jamaica. Nine of them flew in from other places. So all 11 of them are there, they're getting ready, they're prepping. And Monday is day one of, of, course material. Instruction. it's been really fun and it's, it's great.

I keep in touch with these students too, and you can tell that they really get motivated to go further in computer science. We even do surveys. I think the most recent survey we did in Ethiopia, we measured how many kids said they wanted to major in computer science at the beginning of the program.

How many at the end of the program then said they wanna major in computer science. And that number like tripled. It really, you know, increases interest and gets kids motivated.

[00:10:20] Anna Stokke: That's incredible and, and so impactful. So you started this when you were doing your Ph.D. at MIT?

[00:10:27] Jelani Nelson: I started in the summer right after I graduated, so I was in between, I just, I had just graduated, and I was about to start my postdoc in the fall, so it was in, it was in that summer, right in between.

[00:10:39] Anna Stokke: And your postdoc was at Princeton, right? 

[00:10:42] Jelani Nelson: My last year of Ph.D. I got a faculty job at Harvard, and then I deferred that for two years to just do other things. So I spent one semester at the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute, which is in Berkeley. 

[00:10:56] Anna Stokke: I've been there. Yeah. it overlooks the town, right? 

[00:10:58] Jelani Nelson: On the hill. That's right, so it's in Berkeley, not part of UC Berkeley, but it's in the city of Berkeley. And then, I spent a year and a half between the Princeton University Computer Science Department and the Institute for Advanced Study.

[00:11:11] Anna Stokke: Now you're at Berkeley and you're a research scientist for Google and you're running these wildly successful programs. This is just incredible. But do you sleep? 

[00:11:23] Jelani Nelson: And I have two kids and a third one coming. Yes.

[00:11:26] Anna Stokke: Oh wow. Congratulations!

[00:11:29] Jelani Nelson: Thank you. No, but actually I, I somehow manage to sleep very well. I don't know.


[00:11:32] Anna Stokke: Maybe it's because of all the good work you're doing. 

So let's talk a bit more about the CMF, and we talked about the data science stuff, and let's talk about another issue that's come up a lot that I've seen raised a lot with the CMF and that concerns the accelerated classes, can we start by talking about the, the status quo situation?

So my, my understanding, and you're gonna correct me if I'm wrong, my understanding is that it had been the case that students could take a more advanced math starting in grade seven. Is that correct?


[00:12:06] Jelani Nelson: Because we're not centralized like Ethiopia or maybe like Canada, every school district can really do its own thing. So the question of like, when, when are you allowed to accelerate and by how much is really decided kind of school district, by school district, but you know, yes.

I mean, it was very common that starting in seventh grade, like for example, my school, which followed the US school setup, was in seventh grade some students took pre-algebra, then in eighth-grade algebra, then in ninth grade, geometry, et cetera. Whereas there were other students who, so that was like the accelerated version, but the students who were not accelerated would not take algebra one until ninth grade.

Whereas, you know, I took it in eighth grade, for example. But there are some school districts that allow acceleration, even more acceleration, where, you know, you could take algebra even in seventh grade or even earlier.

And of course the, the earlier you accelerate, that's, that's even more and more rare. But, but you know, it is possible. A total outlier would be something like, this is a private school now there's a school in San Francisco called the Proof School, where I think like every kid who goes to that school takes calculus by ninth grade.

Right? And then, you know, the rest of high school, they're taking basically college-level math courses. But that's very abnormal. But you know, that, that's like hyper-acceleration, but it's not, not not very common, but it exists.

[00:13:28] Anna Stokke: It varies by school district and by school here too. It is possible in some schools to get an advanced math course in grade seven or eight. It would be students in the same grade, but they would be taking a more advanced stream of, of math. What did, or, or what does the proposed CMF say about accelerated math classes?

[00:13:50] Jelani Nelson: Yeah, so it's changed, it's changed from revision to revision. So the, the first draft of the CMF was very strongly against acceleration. The thought was, let's look at different demographics. What percent of black kids are accelerating and taking algebra early versus white kids versus Asian kids, et cetera.

And noticing that there are very large discrepancies. So then the thought was, well, acceleration kind of is just, is itself a source of inequity, so let's remove that inequity by just removing acceleration. There was a lot of pushback against that, including by me and, you know, me and others in that open letter that we put out in late 2021.

And that got toned down in the second revision. So the second revision didn't out say we should outride and ban acceleration, but still strongly cautioned against it and said, you know, many kids are not ready for it, et cetera. Revision three, maybe ask me that question again in, in a, in a week or so after I finished reading it, but we'll see.

[00:14:53] Anna Stokke: So again, we have that theme again, that a lot of students aren't ready to take the accelerated courses, so let's just remove the accelerated courses. So it's similar to the data science argument. A better argument might be to actually do a better job of the K-6 math so that more students would be prepared to take the accelerated courses.

But anyway, that, those are just sort of my thoughts on it. 

[00:15:21] Jelani Nelson: It's interesting because there's, there's a famous, I mean, there's a famous civil rights activist named Bob Moses. Who founded something called the Algebra Project. And you know, I told you already about Adrian Mims, who founded the Calculus project, and Bob Moses' whole thing was also getting kids ready for algebra.

So yeah, I mean that's exactly as you say, rather than, rather than slow everyone down. Because the, the, the argument was not, that not a lot of kids are ready for algebra. The argument was that readiness for algebra is very different across different demographic groups. Whereas this demographic group has high readiness for acceleration in math, you know, this other demographic group doesn't.

So the equitable thing to do would be to slow everyone down and don't allow anyone to accelerate. You know, and the argument we made, by the way, is that this is a very bad idea because, you know, eliminating acceleration will actually introduce more inequity, not reduce inequity.

And you know, there, there one reason for that. A very obvious, a very simple reason is private school. So for example, San Francisco Unified School District got rid of eighth-grade algebra. No one was allowed to take eighth-grade algebra starting in 2014. That's nine years ago. But guess what? In San Francisco Unified School in San Francisco, you have something like 30% of kids in private school.

So even though the public schools have gotten rid of eighth-grade algebra, the private schools can do whatever they want, such as the Proof School I told you about, which has all their kids taking calculus in ninth grade, right? It's not a normal school. 

But my point is, if you get, if you get rid of acceleration options in the public schools, then what you're gonna have is the kids who come from families with money can just get that acceleration by going to private school or even possibly in some school districts, they'll just pay for summer classes to get their kid to take it early and then place out and skip ahead when they go back in the, in the school year. But again, that costs money, right?

You're advantaging, you're giving advantage to kids who come from families with resources and you're making it harder for kids to succeed who don't have those resources. So you know, how is that equitable?

[00:17:39] Anna Stokke: So were students actually banned from taking algebra in eighth grade then?

[00:17:46] Jelani Nelson: In the public schools? Yes, they were. They were banned. They could not take it. 


[00:17:50] Anna Stokke: Okay. And this was in San Francisco? 

[00:17:52] Jelani Nelson: That's right.

[00:17:53] Anna Stokke: This was kind of piloted there, that's my understanding. I also read somewhere that it was written in the CMF standards that this had been successful in San Francisco, but is that correct?

[00:18:08] Jelani Nelson: So this, yeah, to ask me whether that's correct. You know, that's not my area of expertise to answer whether it's correct or not. What I will say is that It's definitely been challenged, okay. So there was a parent advocacy group in San Francisco, I think their name is Families for San Francisco, and they did a Public Records Act request to the San Francisco Unified School District to get raw data.


One of the claims that apparently the school district had made was that before they got rid of acceleration, the repeat rate in Algebra I was 40%, meaning like 40% of the kids had to take the class again because they failed. And that it dropped to something like 7% afterward.

After they, after they got rid of acceleration, it dropped to 7%. So like the school district was touting these numbers to say, look, a lot of kids that were getting accelerated were not actually ready to accelerate. And, and that, that's something, by the way, that I can also understand that there is somewhat of a college arms race.

You know if, if my kid accelerates and takes math earlier and gets to more, more and more advanced math in high school, it looks better on their college application. So what you do have also is you do have some parents who are really pushing their kids to accelerate, even though the kid, that individual kid might not be ready.

And you also have other funny, you have also other funny reasons for acceleration. I, you know, this, I got this from just talking to teachers that sometimes what'll happen is, because of a kid's schedule, some of the other classes they're taking. the non-accelerated class math class might not fit into their schedule, so they get put into the accelerated one just for scheduling issues, which again, you know, is not really what's supposed to happen, right?

I'm not talking about San Francisco. I'm just saying generally, this kind of, this kind of thing happens at some school districts. So anyway, going back to San Francisco, you know, they, they put out these stats down from 40% failure rate to seven to argue that things are working. Kids, kids were getting accelerated even though they shouldn't have been.

But now that, now that we are ending the acceleration, it's, you know, kids are doing better. And this Families for San Francisco did a Public Records Act request and what they found, they found two things. One is there's no way to get this 40% figure from the data. If you just look at the actual repeat rate, it looks like, you know, out of 2,361 kids, 649 repeated.

That's a repeat rate of about 27.5%, not 40%. And there's another thing that happened, which is very important. It turns, it seems that actually the, the school district made two changes at the same time. It's not just that they got rid of acceleration, they simultaneously got rid of an exit exam. So in order to pass algebra, not only did you need to get a passing grade, you needed to get a passing grade in the class and pass a state exit exam,

[00:21:17] Anna Stokke: Okay.

[00:21:19] Jelani Nelson: And they got rid of that exit exam. So of course more people are gonna pass because you no longer require the exit exam. Because of that there were accusations that kind of, the numbers were, you know, were fudged. 

There was also a recent report by education researchers at Stanford led by someone named Professor Thomas D, which also basically said that, like, now this is something that just came out earlier this year, so this is like nine, nine years after they started this experiment, that basically said that it wasn't working, that the, you know, the outcomes for, for minority students were not getting any better.

They, they actually made the claim that. There was a slight uptick in enrollment in pre-calculus courses for minority students, but that itself has been a controversial statement because that course they're referring to is an Algebra II, pre-calculus compression course. So it kind of compresses two courses in one, which the UC has not approved as a pre-calculus course. 

So then it seems that there, there really maybe haven't been any noticeable improvements since, since that new policy by San Francisco. So, my understanding, again, I don't live in San Francisco, you know, I just know what I know. I just know from talking to people and reading the news.

So I'm not, I'm not like an authoritative source here, but definitely, there are many parents who are upset about this. I mean, I've talked to, I've talked to a couple of teachers, you know, there is a real issue that if you look at the acceleration who's accelerating, there are huge gaps along, you know, ethnic lines.

The Black students are not accelerating nearly at the same rate as the White and Asian students, right. And you know, I think that maybe school teachers want to fix this. My opinion, my opinion is that the, you know, this idea of banning it for everyone is definitely not the right way to fix it.

[00:23:15] Anna Stokke: So what do you think is the right way to fix it? 

[00:23:18] Jelani Nelson: I wish I had all the answers. I mean, I think, you know, what you said about providing support to students earlier makes a lot of sense. And, you know, there are programs like that in Indiana. Like I, you know, I mentioned the Ab7G, that starts as early as second grade. You know, I would love to see more programs like that here.

I think that we need, evidence-backed approaches. With accountability measures in place when we roll out these kinds of changes. We shouldn't keep experimenting in school districts and experimenting on kids and possibly hurting kids in the process.

[00:23:53] Anna Stokke: This is a quote that I found from Brian Conrad.

Brian Conrad is a math professor at Stanford University. I went through his website on this, and he read through the CMF and he looked at the claims that were made against the work cited. And here's a quote from him: 

“I encountered a lot of assertions in the CMF that were hard to believe and were justified via citations in essentially all cases. The papers were seriously misrepresented in the CMF. Some papers even had conclusions opposite to the claim.”

This is just astounding. I'll say I'm not surprised because I did go through the K-12 math curriculum in Manitoba several years ago, and I found the same thing. I found that, not only that a lot of the work cited are not what we consider, they'd be more what we'd call opinion pieces as opposed to actual valid research. 

[00:24:58] Jelani Nelson: There is a lot of citation of like blog posts and websites and that sort of thing in the CMF which are not actually like peer-reviewed research. I mean, they do also cite some peer-reviewed research, but yes, I am familiar with, what you're talking about that, Brian Conrad, for the second edition of the California Math Framework, he wrote public comments and then he, he created a website and put all his public comment up publicly for anyone to look at. 

There are many chapters of his public comment. I'm seeing eight chapters, and there's one chapter called Citation Misrepresentation, which was like a 25-page document where you just kind of methodically went through various references in the CMF and point and, you know, read the original papers and as you say, pointed out that many of them were being cited for things that the original articles didn't even say.

Especially there were a lot related to neuroscience. And actually, there was this article in the Chronicle of Higher Education. It was a cover story some months ago where the, the journalist who wrote that article, her name is Stephanie Lee. Jo Boaler is one of the authors of the CMF, so she interviewed Boaler, but then she interviewed a lot of the authors of those neuroscience papers.

And even those authors of those neuroscience papers were, were saying, “Yes, you know, we agree. Our papers were not being cited accurately. They were being misrepresented in the CMF.” So, but yeah, it's not just neuroscience. I mean, he has a lot of, he has a lot of evidence of citation misrepresentation related to acceleration and tracking and other things as well.

[00:26:31] Anna Stokke: For example, from my understanding from reading what he wrote is that the CMF sites a particular paper as showing positive outcomes for achievement and longer-term academic success from keeping students in heterogeneous groups focused on higher-level content through middle school, but they leave out the details that the paper being cited actually studied the effect of teaching Algebra I for all eighth-grade students.

That's exactly the sort of acceleration policy that, the CMF was arguing against.

[00:27:06] Jelani Nelson: But I should mention by the way, like again, I don't live in San Francisco, but from what I was told, prior to banning algebra in eighth grade, that's actually what San Francisco was doing. Immediately before banning it, the policy in San Francisco was that everyone took algebra in, in eighth grade.

They didn't have it in between. They went from everybody taking it in eighth grade to the next year, nobody is allowed to take it in eighth grade.

[00:27:29] Anna Stokke: You told us earlier about how you taught yourself to code and, and everything like that. So do you think that there is good reason to have accelerated classes available for students who excel?

[00:27:45] Jelani Nelson: I wouldn't use the, you know, words gifted or, you know, some students are destined to excel and some are not. I think, for one reason or another, you know, they're, some kids are just ready. It's about where, you know, where is the kid? Are they ready to take, algebra in eighth grade?

And if they are, let them, I think you also run the risk of if you, if you hold students back who are ready for something and put them in a slower moving course or a course that they've already mastered the material from then, you know, you run the risk that you're going to, you know, dim their excitement about the course.

I think kids are excited also when they're challenged. they get unexcited when they're bored. 

[00:28:24] Anna Stokke: Here, you can take the AP calculus course in high school and that's one less university course that you have to pay for. I actually think it helps students that don't come from affluent families.

Is it the same there? 

[00:28:37] Jelani Nelson: I mean, it depends on the university, but yes, many universities accept, let you use AP courses to place out of university courses. So about acceleration and, and helping students, I mean, another thing I'll say is people, say things like, “Why do we have so few Black faculty in the professorate,” right? Especially in amongst STEM faculty. 

So few Black math professors, Black computer science professors. Why do we have so few Black people in tech, in the tech industry at places like, you know, Google and Facebook and Apple and Microsoft, et cetera.

If you want to get more, people from minority backgrounds ready, you know, ready to excel, set up, to excel to, to achieve those goals then I think, you know, we want more kids accelerating, not, you know, not slowing everybody down. I guess you mentioned some of the awards I won, one award I won that you didn't mention is the CRA-E I think it's called the Faculty Mentoring Award or something like that.

It's basically given to two professors a year in computer science across all of North America who have, provided exceptional mentorship to undergraduates, okay. So I was one of the two winners maybe a year or two ago. 

[00:29:53] Anna Stokke: Congratulations. 

[00:29:55] Jelani Nelson: Thank you, thank you. And so I've mentored a lot of under, you know, I've mentored many undergrads who have been wildly successful in research and gone on to Ph.D.s, et cetera.

And, I've noticed a pattern where the kids who excel the most in undergraduate research are the ones who, you know, have quite a bit of acceleration. So they're coming into college freshman year already taking upper-div courses because they've accelerated in high school. They learn about what research is earlier.

They get involved in research from freshman or sophomore year, so that by the time they get to their senior year, they already have like two to three years of research under their belt and they become very attractive candidates for applications to Ph.D. programs. I didn't have that level of acceleration when I was a kid.

I am now a professor at Berkeley. I'm a full professor. I was a professor at Harvard, but it wasn't an easy road. I remember arriving at MIT as an undergrad feeling behind, even though I had taken calculus in high school. You know, there were kids who just had, who had exposure to things much earlier than I did via, you know, extracurricular opportunities that I didn't have in my small town in the Caribbean.

I think giving kids opportunities to accelerate, giving kids even extracurricular enrichment opportunities where they can go push themselves further and explore math, explore other STEM interests, I think is very important.

[00:31:20] Anna Stokke: How did the parents react in San Francisco when their children could no longer take accelerated classes?

[00:31:28] Jelani Nelson: Yeah. Again, again, I don't live in San Francisco, so I'm not an expert on this, but I did read that there was a lawsuit that the parents filed a lawsuit against the school district. Actually, there was another lawsuit recently against the Palo Alto Unified School District, and the, the judge actually decided that lawsuit earlier this year that the parents won.

It's a different case. It's not exactly the same situation. In Palo Alto, there was some level at which, I forgot if it was entering high school or when it was, that kids could accelerate but there was allegedly a really, really hard exam they had to pass to accelerate. And the, the claim of the parents was that, you know, the exam was just unreasonably hard.

It was not simply testing whether they were, you know, ready for, for acceleration. It was, it was kind of designed so that almost no one, you know, or that very few kids would be able to pass it. I might be getting the details slightly wrong because I'm not a part of that.

And I don't live in Palo Alto. I don't live in San Francisco. But the judge did, did make this decision that, you know, that ruled in favour of the parents. And then kind of soon after that, San Francisco was sued about this policy of “no algebra allowed in eighth grade.” And I think one of the, one of the issues in San Francisco is not only were they not allowing algebra in eighth grade, I think, there are other courses you could take for algebra outside the school district.

Like there are some online course offerings you can take or like summer courses, et cetera. And some of those are, remember I told you like the UC approves courses from high schools, right? So some of these online courses were approved by the UC as covering the content of Algebra I. So what some parents wanted to do was in San Francisco, put their kid in that online course, have them complete the UC-certified Algebra I course, and then take that approval, take that course to the public school and say, “Look, public school, my kids already taken this UC-approved Algebra I course.”

I now demand that you accelerate them, and I think San Francisco was refusing, they were saying, “no, no one is allowed to, no one is allowed to accelerate.” And I think that's what, that's been one of the points of the lawsuit saying. I hope I'm not getting the details wrong.

I think this is something that happened, let me not say too much because again, I haven't been following San Francisco super closely.

[00:33:56] Anna Stokke: What do you think about the claim that critics of the proposed CMF are elite gatekeepers?

[00:34:03] Jelani Nelson: I don't really know what they mean. I mean, I look at these opposition letters like the letter signed by four, almost 450 California faculty. The associate dean for DEI of the Berkeley College of Engineering is one of the co-authors. Is she in a, is the dean for DEI an elitist gatekeeper?

Am I an elitist gatekeeper? I mean, I don't know. I mean, I want more Black kids and kids of colour in my classes. I teach at UC Berkeley, I taught undergraduate algorithms in the fall. My class had 730 or so students in the fall, and you know, some kids, you know, that was in the beginning of the course, and then kids drop, they change that, that usually happens.

I think the course ended with 630 or so kids and very, very, very, very few black kids in my course. In the spring course, in the spring I taught a graduate algorithms course, which had more than 70 students. Not a single Black kid in that class. So I mean it for me as a Black faculty member, like I'm not happy seeing that. I want more, I want more Black, I mean Black kids coming into STEM, coming to Berkeley, getting into computer science.

I mean, that's the whole reason I started programs like AddisCoder and like JamCoders. I don't wanna gatekeep, but you, you're right. There are people who view some of these courses as gatekeeper courses.

Algebra II is a gatekeeper course. Calculus is a gatekeeper course. And I think that's just the wrong way to look at it. I mean, the truth is that these are course courses that, if you wanna major in certain quantitative majors, not just STEM, but other quantitative majors as well, you need that content knowledge. 

And, you know, don't view it as a gatekeeper course, just ask what do we need to do to make sure kids are set up for success when they take those courses and that they pass the course and they're ready to not only pass, but pass with a good, with a good score and, you know, really understand the material.

 I completely don't agree that we are, there's, we are a bunch of elitists.

[00:36:05] Anna Stokke: Absolutely not. And you can see it as a, as gatekeeping, I view algebra as a bridge. It's a bridge to higher-level mathematics. And it's a bridge that, that you wanna cross and that, students should be able to cross that bridge, right? If, if they're taught well, but I mean, if you don't know how to add fractions, if you didn't learn how to add fractions properly, you're gonna have a pretty hard time with algebra.

So the, the cumulative part of it is sometimes what holds people back. That doesn't mean we're gatekeeping. That means, you know, we're being realistic about what you need to know to succeed in higher-level math, and that's algebra really. And to succeed in algebra, you need to know a whole bunch of other things.

[00:36:48] Jelani Nelson: I mean, let me also tell another story from my own life. I mean, you're talking about just readiness and, you know, early preparation. I remember the, the summer after my freshman year of college. This was 2002, so more than 20 years ago, I didn't have any internship or any other summer activity.

I just went home. I went home to the Virgin Islands and, I was just, going to the, you know, we have nice beaches. I was going to the beach every day. And at some point, I thought, “let me, you know, let me do something again. Just like AddisCoder,” I thought, “let me do something to give back to my community.”

I went to the local, the biggest local public high school and I said, “Hey, you know, I would love to just like help. I'll be a tutor. Like however I could help in math, I wanna help.” Because I was a double major in math and computer science. And I remember they sent me to the geometry classroom. It was a summer, like summer session.

The geometry teacher - I, I arrived, and I said, “how can I help?” And she said, “okay, I want you to take, like, she just cut the class in half and she said, take these, half of the students, take them in the back of the classroom and just, you know, like, help them.” I was not given a whole lot of guidance.

I, I was just kind of thrown into the pit. But, you know, I tried to do the best I could. And I remember day one, I thought to myself, “This is geometry, it's right after Algebra I. Let me just do a little bit of review of Algebra I to just gauge where these kids are.” So I started asking a lot of Algebra I questions and kids were just not answering.

So then I started making the questions easier and easier, and I remember at some point I said, “Okay, 7x=14, solve for x,” and the room was silent. And then I said, “Okay, x= 14 ÷ 7. What is 14 divided by seven?” Then someone shouted out, “Zero,” I remember that. And I said, “no, it's not zero.”

And then there was silence. And then at some point a kid pulled out their calculator and punched in 14÷7 and said two. And that's when I really realized, I mean these kids were failed. I mean, and this is, I mean, I'm talking about the kids at that time in that classroom, those kids had been failed way before this geometry class, right?

I mean, you know, division, 14 divided by seven, that's, I learned that in elementary school, So, yeah, I mean, I think there are problems that start young, okay. Again, that's, this is not my expertise, but I've, but I've seen it. I, I remember first seeing it back then in 2002 when I, how old was I?

I was like turning 18 years old. The solution to that problem and similar problems is, again, is, is not to create false math classes that we call math, you know, data science classes, put them in there, have kids pass, and then claim victory. You know, I wanna see kids, I wanna see us really do right by the kids and make sure that we're not failing them.

And that, you know, they're, not only literate, but also numerate. There's been a lot of talk in the press lately about literacy crises, kids not reading in third grade. I think we need to also improve numeracy and, you know, and math prep starting from a young age.

[00:39:58] Anna Stokke: We absolutely do. And what grade was that, that you were working with? 

[00:40:04] Jelani Nelson: I don't remember what grade they were in, but it was geometry class. So geometry class would normally be 10th grade, but it was a summer session. I mean, so to be fair, there are usually two kinds of kids who participate in summer session, right? One is the kids who, who wanna like, get ahead and take it a year, take it early, and the other is the kids who failed the class and are being forced to repeat it by the school.

Many of the kids who are in the summer session might have been from that second group, I don't know. It's clear that they were not just behind in geometry. They were, you know, they were behind just in like early mathematics,

[00:40:40] Anna Stokke: Yeah. And it's impossible to learn the later mathematics if you don't know those things. And then kids start to feel really stupid. You know, if you don't know what's going on in the class, it's like the teacher’s speaking another language that you don't understand. And I am certain that you could walk into, you could find a Canadian classroom, kids are in grade seven or eight, and they don't know their times tables. 

And this is really setting up a lot of kids for failure later on. These are things we can fix. Like they really are. Math education does need an overhaul, but not the kind that's being promoted, that's what I think,


[00:41:17] Jelani Nelson: Let me not comment definitively on version three because I'm still reading it. But yes, I mean, I did, I did have serious concerns with the first two versions.

[00:41:26] Anna Stokke: Who was included in writing the proposed CMF? Was this a diverse group of writers? Did it include mathematicians, say?

[00:41:36] Jelani Nelson: Again, the, the CMF doesn't actually list the authors in the document, which I, I'm not sure why not, but you can Google around and find them. There were five. Four of the five were people from the math education community. So they're really from like, you know, education backgrounds, not, you know, math departments.

So those were, you know, Katy Early, Jo Boaler, Jenny Langer-Osuna, and Brian Lindaman. And then the, there was one mathematician on the writing committee who's someone named Ben Ford. So those were the five authors of the CMF. But then there were other committees too like the California Department of Education put together a committee.

I think the acronym was CCFC or CFCC. I'm getting it slightly, I forgot where the, there's three Cs in F. I forgot which of those two it is. Of those 30, and so it was a committee of about 30 people, and I think all but one maybe were K through 12 math educators. And maybe the, maybe the last person I think might have been a lecturer in a math department, if I remember correctly.

In a post-high school math department, either at a community college or at a, at a university. But yeah, there was, you know, that's one of the things we said in our open letter in late November, early December in 2021. Yes, I mean, I think people who have classroom experience definitely should be a part of the process and, you know, even maybe own the process, which is, you know, and also build strong education. 

But, there really, I think, should have been more, more involvement of university-level mathematicians. And especially if you're gonna talk so much about data science, please, you know, have someone with data science expertise also as part of the process. None of these people I'm mentioning have any real training in data science.

Even Jo Boaler who’s YouCubed has a data science course, you know, Jo Boaler does not have a background in data science. I think that was, that was unfortunate that, you know, we advocated for, for a different kind of makeup of these committees.

[00:43:36] Anna Stokke: And that might have avoided some of these misunderstandings about what actually is needed to become a data scientist. And that Algebra II actually is an important course for students to take if they wanna go into to STEM fields, really. 

[00:43:51] Jelani Nelson: There's actually a little bit of a, of a joke related to that. I told you that someone did a Public Records Act request and got the emails between the IDS creator, Rob Gould and the data science creator and then the YiuCubed faculty director Jo Boaler.

In one of those emails, she says, “In the midst of our standards work,” she's talking to Rob Gould,  “We are wondering if inequalities are at all relevant in data science?” 

Inequalities, are inequalities relevant in data science? But you know, it's like your organization is creating a data science course. You are a co-author of the math framework that's really kind of pushing data science throughout K through 12. 

You know, shouldn't there be someone on that committee that knows the answer to these questions? And, and I guess the joke was, there was an argument. They claimed that data science itself is just inherently more equitable than, you know, Algebra II.

And it's like, I guess it's so equitable that it, it doesn't even have inequalities, you see?

[00:44:50] Anna Stokke: So where are we at now? Did the CMF address the criticisms about deacceleration?

[00:44:56] Jelani Nelson: Again, I'll have to answer that, I guess, after I finish reading revision three. It definitely already toned down the language in revision two, which was a positive compared to revision one. Revision one was, I mean, draft one was just like saying we should outright ban it like San Francisco.

So I think we've already progressed. So I guess, yeah, ask me that again next week.

[00:45:16] Anna Stokke: When are the public comments due, and when is the vote?

[00:45:20] Jelani Nelson: Public comments are due July 7th at 12:00 PM on the California Department of Education website. If you just do a Google search for California Math Framework, you'll find it and you'll find a link to where to submit the public comment. And you can also give public comment live at the State Board of Education meeting if you're willing to drive to Sacramento. 

That State Board of Education meeting is July 12th to 13th, and in that meeting, one of those two days is when they'll vote on the math framework. It's on the agenda for a vote.

[00:45:48] Anna Stokke: Okay, well, let's keep our fingers crossed then, right? 

[00:45:53] Jelani Nelson: Yes, indeed.

[00:45:54] Anna Stokke: Well, thank you so much for talking to me today. I really, I really enjoyed talking to you and, and learning about your work and talking to you about these things because it is obviously really important and you're doing great work and I hope we get to meet in person sometime.

[00:46:11] Jelani Nelson: Yes, thanks for having me. And yeah, if you're ever in the Bay Area, let me know.

[00:46:15] Anna Stokke: I hope you enjoyed today's episode of Chalk and Talk. Please go ahead and follow on your favourite podcast app so you can get new episodes delivered as they become available. You can follow me on Twitter for notifications or check out my website for more information. This podcast received funding through a University of Winnipeg Knowledge Mobilization and Community Impact grant funded through the Anthony Swaity Knowledge Impact Fund.

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