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No, Virginia is not moving to eliminate advanced high school math classes

Textbooks in a math classroom at Paul VI High School in Fairfax in 2016.
Textbooks in a math classroom at Paul VI High School in Fairfax in 2016. (Dayna Smith/for the Washington Post)
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Facing attacks from right-wing pundits and scrutiny from lawmakers, Virginia’s superintendent of public instruction said on Monday that the state is not eliminating advanced high school mathematics courses.

Superintendent James Lane said the Virginia Department of Education is in the early stages of a regularly scheduled revision of its mathematics Standards of Learning, which guide school systems in their course offerings across all areas of instruction. As part of that revision process, which takes place every seven years, state officials recently began workshopping some ideas as to how Virginia could teach mathematics in a way that better prepared children for college and the workforce, Lane said.

The ideas — detailed online as part of a program called the Virginia Mathematics Pathways Initiative — include rejiggering eighth-, ninth- and 10th-grade math courses to place a greater emphasis on fields including data science and data analytics, Lane said. Schools would still offer traditional courses such as Algebra I, Geometry and Algebra II, the superintendent said, but these courses would now “incorporate stronger foundations in data analytics,” for example.

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And the content might “blend” a little: So Algebra students could learn a bit of Geometry, and vice versa, in ways that help students understand the applications of the mathematics they are studying.

“The main thing I think the mathematics team is talking about at this time is, ‘How can we make sure that students have more skills in those mathematical areas that will help them after graduation?’ ” Lane said. “Every job in the future is going to need more focus on data.”

Lane added that these suggestions are still just that — suggestions. The department is currently gathering public feedback and has yet to draft a new version of its mathematics standards. The earliest a draft could come before the Virginia Board of Education is school year 2022-2023, Lane said, and the earliest any Virginia students would begin learning math under the new paradigm is school year 2025-2026.

But these facts were obscured over the past week as outrage built online, fueled by social media posts from prominent Virginians and copious coverage from right-wing news outlets.

The kerfuffle began when Loudoun County School Board member Ian Serotkin (Blue Ridge) posted on his public Facebook page about the initiative. He wrote on April 22 that he had received a briefing on the initiative, which he wrote promised to “revamp the K-12 math curriculum statewide.”

He praised the initiative for “some noble goals,” including the fact that 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.” But he criticized it for what he said it would do to advanced math classes, claiming the proposal would force all seventh-graders to take the exact same math class, all eighth-graders to take the exact same math class, and so on through 11th grade.

“As currently planned, this initiative will eliminate ALL math acceleration prior to 11th grade,” Serotkin wrote. “That is not an exaggeration, nor does there appear to be any discretion in how local districts implement this.”

In multiple rounds of video calls with reporters Monday, Lane said this assertion is false. He said the initiative does not propose eliminating accelerated math classes, nor does it require all students in a grade to take the same math class no matter their level of ability. Under the initiative, students would still take higher-level classes tailored to their grasp of mathematics, he said.

Lane also noted that those kinds of decisions — how an advanced student should best progress through middle and high school math classes — would be made by local school officials, not the Virginia Department of Education, as has always been the case. Every school division has vast discretion in how it uses state standards to formulate its curriculum, he said: “Ultimately the school divisions decide what courses look like.”

Schools must teach “in alignment” to the standards, given students will eventually undergo testing to gauge their grasp of the standards, Lane said. But school districts can accelerate students through the math curriculum as teachers deem appropriate.

Added Michael Bolling, Virginia’s assistant superintendent for learning and innovation: “The bottom line is, we create standards and the local school divisions create courses, then they choose which students those courses are most appropriate for.”

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Lane said he had no idea how people such as Serotkin came to believe that the initiative called for eliminating accelerated math courses.

“I can’t answer that, because I don’t know where that came from, but what I will say is I’m worried that people are misinterpreting things,” he said.

An earlier version of the Pathway Initiative website may explain some of the confusion. Virginia Department of Education staffers updated the website over the weekend, and the new version has 13 bullet points that explain what the initiative does and does not do. For example, it does not “eliminate . . . the study of calculus” or “the content from Algebra I, Geometry, and Algebra 2.”

The old version explaining the initiative, though, offered just two short, jargon-laden paragraphs declaring that it would help students “be successful in college and/or the workforce and . . . ‘life ready.’ ” And under a question asking about “goals and desired outcomes,” it listed “improving equity in mathematics learning opportunities” as the first bullet point. (In the new version, that bullet point has been moved to second-to-last place.)

After receiving a question from a constituent about the initiative, state Sen. Chap Petersen (D-Fairfax) said he clicked to the website and came away without answers.

“It was very confusing, what was going on,” he said. “I didn’t know what it said. To me, it was gobbledygook, it was all about ‘connectivity’ and whatever else . . . you read it and it’s like, ‘What is this about?’ ”

On Monday, Loudoun’s Serotkin posted on Facebook that he had seen the updated Education Department website and that “some parts of this are quite different than their previous messaging and information provided, and alleviates much of my concern.”

As Virginia’s Pathways Initiative became embedded in the nation’s culture wars, some Republicans were calling it the latest leftist attempt to diminish academic excellence in search of equity.

Republican gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin said that, if elected, he would fire everyone involved with the proposal. Another Republican gubernatorial candidate, Del. Kirk Cox (Colonial Heights), tweeted that stopping the Pathways Initiative would form part of his “7-part plan [to] fight the radical left head on.”

“It’s time to put a stop to the left-wing takeover of public education in Virginia,” he tweeted.

Parents of all political persuasions expressed alarm at the proposal. And on the other side of the aisle, Petersen wrote a letter to state Secretary of Education Atif Qarni citing constituent unease and asking for more information.

“I have reviewed a version of the program on the DOE website but am not sure I understand the purpose or what it actually does,” he wrote. “I would appreciate a plain explanation . . . without using socio-political jargon but rather just simply stating what subjects will be taught and when.”

At Serotkin’s request, the Loudoun County School Board will discuss the initiative at its meeting Tuesday night.