California Sen. Holly Mitchell (D) connects the lack of racial diversity in Silicon Valley with racially motivated “math misplacement.”
She claims middle-school algebra teachers are holding back black and Latino kids from advancing to ninth-grade geometry, even though they are doing just as well as white kids who are getting a grade of “B” or better, and are meeting or exceeding state standard assessments.
However, the study that Mitchell and others supporting her effort cite as proof of their position also shows the real problem is actually with middle-school algebra teachers. Many of them just aren’t very good at their jobs.
The study also shows teachers’ judgment could be affected by a ferocious academic debate over whether algebra should even be taught in middle schools.
Legislation authored by Sen. Mitchell, which is intended to protect black and Latino students from being pushed to the back of the mathematics classroom bus, has received bipartisan support.
Senate Bill 359 was recently passed out of the California Assembly on a 77-0 vote. It awaits the signature of Gov. Jerry Brown (D).
The bill requires public school districts to develop and adhere to performance and assessment-based standards for assigning students to math courses.
Isn’t that what always happens, especially in math courses? If the numbers add up, students advance, right?
Wrong, according to Mitchell. She pointed to a 2010 Noyce Foundation Pathways study that Mitchell said found that African-American and Latino students, in particular, were improperly held back in nine Bay Area school districts despite having demonstrated proficiency on state standardized math tests.
More simply put, Mitchell said white kids were moved into advanced classes while black and Latino kids with the same or sometimes better scores were held back.
“Kids deserve the best shot we can give them at success,” said Sen. Mitchell. “Yet too many students who are working hard to build the skills they need to be successful in our economy are being prevented from doing so.”
Whatever the cause of the problem, there is no doubt the Silicon Valley tech community has been criticized for its lack of racial and gender diversity.
A 2014 Brookings Institution report showed African-Americans and Latinos hold fewer than four percent of the jobs at the six largest Silicon Valley tech companies.
Given that nearly 60 percent of California’s children belong to those ethnic groups, while technology jobs are projected to grow by 22 percent in the state over the next five years, advocates of SB 359 said opening a career pipeline for children of color into STEM careers is crucial for both them and the state.
“California and its economy can no longer afford to allow successful students, particularly those of color, to be unnecessarily held back in math due to a lack of fair, transparent and objective math placement policies in school districts,” said Dr. Emmett Carson, CEO and president of the Silicon Valley Community Foundation.
Alice Huffman, the president of the California State Conference of the NAACP, and Andrea Deveau, the California executive director of TechNet, a bipartisan network of innovation economy executives, expressed support for Sen. Mitchell’s proposal in an op-ed column they co-authored for the Sacramento Bee.
“The number of minority applicants for jobs in tech and other STEM industries is not keeping pace with the overall diversity of the workforce. Latinos and African Americans combined make up 58 percent of California’s children and future workforce. With statewide STEM jobs expected to grow by 22 percent over the next five years, we should be removing obstacles that prevent students from advancing in math,” Deveau and Huffman wrote.
“There is a clear connection between the math misplacement problem and the lack of diversity in STEM. If kids fall behind in math in the ninth grade or sooner, they won’t have enough time to take courses that colleges require a math or science major to have taken,” they added.
Alicia Berhow, the vice president of Workforce Development and Advocacy for the Orange County Business Council, also endorsed SB 359 in an op-ed for Fox & Hounds.
“With a large population of minority, particularly young Latino students, representing the future workforce of the Los Angeles and Orange County region,” she wrote, “we cannot allow mistakes in math placement to result in students being unfairly held back in math and thrown off a STEM career trajectory.”
However, Steve Waterman, the author of the Noyce Foundation Pathways study, wrote, “There is no evidence that any district set out to hold back any students of color or to advance one ethnic group rather than others.”
“Rather, the movement to Algebra in eighth grade seems to have run into a series of unwritten beliefs and rules,” Waterman added in the introduction of his report.
He wrote the real problem is what teachers believe about the ways “students prove they understand math, the ways students demonstrate they have the ‘right stuff’ to advance in math, how much math is needed, when topics should be introduced, whether mathematics is linear, how important homework is, how much a teacher should reach down, and what a teacher should do when a student fails to understand a concept.”
Waterman stressed it is this confusion on the part of teachers that really impacts lower-income students because they rely on teachers for classroom help more than middle- and upper-middle income students, who are more often helped by their parents.
He also wrote that blaming “math misplacement” on racism could also exacerbate the problem, because no one wants to talk about the real causes.
“Unfortunately, belief systems are intractable precisely because they are rarely expressed.”