A Wedge for Action Civics -- Florida's SB 146 Bill

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This isn’t going to win me many friends in the conservative media world, but I’m going to score the “Virginia is banning advanced math” claim that rocketed around social media for the past few days as “wildly exaggerated.” A school system, much less a statewide school system, doesn’t make a sweeping change like this quickly or quietly. I discussed this on the Three Martini Lunch podcast the other day; northern Virginia is basically ground zero for hyper-involved parents who are obsessed with getting their kids into Ivy League schools and making sure they’ve got a heavy, rigorous STEM curriculum. The notion that the state was going to suddenly completely overhaul their math system, under the radar, and swiftly dumb down the curriculum for the advanced kids without any vigorous pushback from some extremely powerful and influential people just didn’t sound very plausible.

A lot of the first news stories, including Fox News, used the Facebook post of the Loudon County school board member Ian Serotkin as its primary source. Now, Serotkin is a fine source, but he’s only one source. That widely-shared Fox News article on this wrote that the Virginia Department of Education “did not immediately respond when asked about Serotkin’s comment.”

(I salute those who bothered to look at what the actual proposal is.)

And that initial Fox News story was repeated, more or less repeated verbatim, on other conservative news sites. And when this story got discussed on social media, it quickly became, “the liberals want our kids dumbed down because an ignorant population is one they can control.”

But that’s not what Serotkin said, or initially characterized it. He understood the proposal’s objective – making sure what’s in the math curriculum actually makes sense for every student – and gave it a little praise in some spots:

There are some noble goals with this initiative – it provides a pathway for every student to be able to take calculus or higher math by the end of high school if they so choose. That is a very good thing, and eliminates a major problem we have currently of students being “locked in” to their math track and being unable to get to calculus later on if they weren’t sufficiently accelerated in middle school.

The Virginia Mathematics Pathways Initiative might have a point or two. Maybe not every kid needs calculus. Maybe courses in statistics, data analysis, probability and mathematical modeling would be more useful to them down the road, whether it’s in college or in the workforce.

The problem Serotkin saw is a homogenization of the math curriculum from about sixth grade to tenth grade. We can argue whether this is a good idea or a bad idea; I think it’s a bad one. But it is not quite accurate to declare in a headline, “Virginia Dept. of Ed moves to end accelerated math classes for ‘equity’” or “Virginia Plans to End Accelerated Math Classes in the Name of ‘Equity’” or “Virginia Eliminates Accelerated Math Courses Because Equity.” Remember, nothing’s been decided yet, and even if enacted, nothing would change for high school juniors and seniors.

Could this reorganization of math teaching in high schools end up with a dumbed-down curriculum? Sure. But that would get a lot of pushback from those hyper-involved parents I mentioned earlier. And for what it’s worth, the Virginia Mathematics Pathways Initiative web site says none of the current key curriculum content is going away:

The content from Algebra 1, Geometry, and Algebra 2 is not being eliminated by VMPI, but rather the content of these courses will be blended into a seamless progression of connected learning. This encourages students to connect mathematical concepts and develop a much deeper and more relevant understanding of each concept within its context and relevance.

In fact, if you looked at the coverage from a place like Washington-area news radio WTOP, you would see key points like, “there is no word on how school districts will implement the plan. The state’s department of education is currently gathering feedback from the public.” This thing is barely off the drawing board, but some news sites wrote about it in past tense.

That wasn’t the angle Fox News went with, of course:

Ian Prior, a Loudoun parent and former Trump administration official, similarly panned the move as a way to “stifle advancement for gifted students and set them back as they prepare for advanced mathematics in college. This is critical race theory in action and parents should be outraged.”

Look, a lot of northern Virginia parents just got their kids back in school a few weeks ago. The state would be wise to get back into the rhythm of getting kids educated and seeing how much ground they have to make up from the past lost year before making any sweeping changes to the curriculum. I can’t begrudge parents for being extremely suspicious of proposed changes, and even Democratic lawmakers asked state officials for “a plain explanation of the program without using socio-political jargon but rather just simply stating what subject will be taught and when.” But that doesn’t give conservative media a free pass to mischaracterize the proposal.

A lot of websites took a probably-flawed idea at a very early stage and turned it into perfect outraged-grandparent-triggering look-what-the-liberals-are-doing-to-schools clickbait.

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