Last summer, when the California State Board of Education unveiled a plan to require all 8th graders to take algebra by 2011, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell opposed the move. That stance might strike parents as odd but California educrats have been fighting higher standards in math for a long time.
In 1997 the math wars reached their height as officials advocated “new” math, which emphasized the process over actual problem solving, while reformers fought for raising the bar with rigorous and unambiguous standards. The reformers won and approved the State Board of Education’s vote for academic standards that called for all eighth graders to learn algebra I. Unfortunately, the struggle didn’t end there.
Superintendent O’Connell contends that algebra I never was the standard. “There’s a state desire for all eighth-graders to take algebra, but that is not the official standard,” explained his spokeswoman Hilary McLean.
No Child Left Behind requires that all 8th graders take tests aligned to grade-level standards, but California currently has a two-tiered system in which some students take an algebra exam while others take a general mathematics exam aligned to 6th- and 7th-grade standards.
To comply with the federal law, California must choose one set of standards and test to it. To resolve this discrepancy, the superintendent opts for creating a compromise exam testing only parts of the algebra standard, an exam critics call “algebra lite.”
The superintendent called his solution a blueprint that “best protects a district’s discretion in sequencing math courses in grades eight through twelve while also meeting the Federal No Child Left Behind requirement.” The education of students for success thus takes a back seat to the protection of district bureaucracy and compliance with federal bureaucracy.
Superintendent O’Connell says California is not ready to teach 8th graders algebra and many students not ready to learn it. He alludes to “disturbing achievement gaps,” between ethnic groups. His assertion that high expectations set up students up for failure does not square with the facts.
A recent EdSource report found that the proportion of African American eighth-graders taking Algebra I had nearly doubled from 2003 to 2007. When more was expected, more students rose to the occasion. The percentage of these students who scored above proficiency on the Algebra I (California Standardized Tests) also increased from 17 percent to 20 percent. Dumbing down the standard could reverse this trend.
Superintendent O’Connell also complains that there is not enough money. “If we are going to put this new expectation on our schools, we need to put appropriate resources into place,” he said. “Otherwise, let’s be honest: we’re just setting our schools up for failure.”
In this view, current failure justifies further failure, and officials use that dynamic to call for more spending. The National Center for Education Statistics reports that California spent more than $63 billion on K-12 education in 2005. Yet the state ranks 48th out of 50 states in basic reading and math skills.
As it happens, teaching algebra in the 8th grade is standard practice in many private schools, including the Catholic school I attended. My alma mater currently asks $8,223 for tuition and offers financial aid, while the state now spends $11,935 per pupil according to the Legislative Analyst.
Teaching algebra in 8th grade is a good idea that will raise standards and set up students for success in higher education and the workplace. If the California education bureaucracy cannot teach 8th graders algebra, as its leader openly admits, the state ought to let parents choose a school that can do the job.