California’s Woke Curricula Built on Research Quicksand


While activists pushing to impose woke curricula in California’s classrooms claim that their ideological innovations are based on research, it turns out that these claims are really built on research quicksand.

Take, for example, the proposed California K-12 math curriculum framework, which seeks to serve as a guide for math instruction in the state’s classrooms.

The recently released second draft of the framework has been criticized for its highly politicized approach to math teaching.

For instance, the draft states that the goal of teaching math will be to “promote racial justice.”  Teachers are asked to promote “sociopolitical consciousness” among students and push a “justice-oriented perspective” at all grade levels.

While this blatant politicization has garnered headlines, the lack of credible research on recommended teaching methodologies also casts a shadow on the framework.

One of the teaching methods recommended in the draft framework is collaborative instruction.

According to one advocacy paper, “In effective collaboration projects, [every student] contributes toward a shared learning objective as much as possible.”

Sounds good, but most research shows that such a teaching method is flawed.

A review by the National Research Council Committee on Techniques for the Enhancement of Human Performance found that there was little evidence to show that cooperative/collaborative learning was better than individual learning.  Further, such learning spawned several detrimental effects such as free-rider problems and ganging-up effects.

Ze’ev Wurman, a former senior policy advisor at the U.S. Department of Education, and Williamson Evers, a former U.S. assistant secretary of education for policy, point out: “The framework promotes only the progressive-education approach to teaching math, calling it ‘student-led’ instruction, ‘active learning,’ ‘active inquiry,’ and ‘collaborative’ instruction.  But evidence from the 1950’s through recent times shows that this way of teaching math is ineffective.”

Wurman and Evers conclude, “This is not even a weakly research-based pedagogical framework—this is an ideological manifesto.”

Besides the math framework, California’s newly enacted ethnic studies requirement is also built on a research house of cards.

Under the new law, California’s high school students must take an ethnic studies course in order to graduate.  Proponents of the law point to two studies principally authored by researchers at Stanford and UC Irvine to support the argument that requiring such a course would improve student achievement.

The two studies claim that ninth-grade San Francisco public school students who took an ethnic studies course experienced academic benefits, including raising C students to B+ students.

However, a new analysis by UCLA law professor Richard Sander and University of Pennsylvania statistician Abraham Wyner show both studies to be fatally flawed.

Analyzing the studies, Sander and Wyner found “an exceptionally messy experimental design, opaque to analysis or replication, reporting data patterns that are unbelievable on their face, and which seriously distorts the actual data results.”

For example, the studies cannot be replicated because the authors of the studies signed a confidentiality agreement.  As Sander and Wyner warn, “Without some form of data sharing, it is impossible to replicate or even deeply understand a scholar’s results.”

Also, the studies did not compare the performance of students who took the ethnic studies course versus non-course-takers and did not account for other interventions offered by the schools that may have accounted for changes in student performance.

Because of the flawed methodologies of the studies, Sander and Wyner observe: “the experiment on which these conclusions are based is so muddled, and the data reported is so ambiguous, that in fact they support no conclusion, either positive or negative, about the effects of this particular ethnic studies course in these particular schools and times.”

And, most damning of all, “not even the lead author claims that the studies provide a basis for establishing ethnic studies mandates for all students.”

Sander and Wyner issue a warning about the ethnic studies research, which could also be applied to the math framework as well: “California parents are not being told the truth about a potentially significant change in the education of their children.”

Lance Izumi is senior director of the Center for Education at the Pacific Research Institute.  He is the author of the new PRI book The Homeschool Boom: Pandemic, Policies, and Possibilities.

Nothing contained in this blog is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Pacific Research Institute or as an attempt to thwart or aid the passage of any legislation.

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