Push Algebra on Eighth-Graders?: YES: Don’t accept failure as the standard

The state Board of Education recently unveiled a plan to require all eighth-graders to take algebra by 2011. That sparked opposition from education officials, including state schools superintendent Jack O’Connell, who said the move was “irresponsible” and “setting up schools for failure.”

That might strike parents as odd, like a state environmental official opposing increased pollution cleanup, but O’Connell’s position is predictable. Educrats have been fighting higher standards for years.

In 1997, the math wars peaked as officials pushed “new” math while reformers fought for rigorous standards. The reformers won the battle for the academic standards that called for all eighth-grade students to take Algebra I.

Use One Barometer

The educrats, however, never gave up. Now O’Connell says that Algebra I never was the standard. Like his predecessors, he wants to dumb down the standard. No Child Left Behind requires that eighth-graders take tests aligned to grade-level standards, but California has a two-tiered system — some take an algebra exam while others take a general math exam aligned to sixth- and seventh-grade standards. To comply, California must choose one set of standards. O’Connell opts for a compromise exam testing only parts of algebra, an exam critics call “algebra lite.” O’Connell’s support for this middling solution appears to stem from a concern for the education bureaucracy, not the students.

He called his solution, “the blueprint which I believe best protects a district’s discretion in sequencing math courses in grades eight through 12 while also meeting the federal No Child Left Behind requirement.” In his words, his concerns are protection of district bureaucracy and compliance with federal bureaucracy. He failed to mention educating students for success.

O’Connell says California is not ready to teach eighth-graders algebra, and many students are not ready to learn it. He alludes to “disturbing achievement gaps” between ethnic groups. His assertion that expecting high achievement sets students up to fail does not square with the facts.

Students Can Do It

An EdSource report found the number of African-American eighth-graders taking Algebra I nearly doubled from 2003 to 2007. When more was expected, more students rose to the occasion: The percentage of students who scored above proficiency increased from 17 percent to 20 percent. Dumbing down standards could reverse this trend.

O’Connell also says there is not enough money, adding that the program will cost $3 billion. “Otherwise, let’s be honest: We’re just setting our schools up for failure.” California spent more than $63 billion on K-12 education in 2005. Yet the state ranks 48th out of 50 in basic reading and math skills.

O’Connell is arguing that current failure justifies further failure, and uses that failure to call for more spending. That will strike many parents, and students, as irresponsible.

Teaching algebra in eighth grade is standard practice in many private schools, including the Catholic school I attended. My alma mater currently asks $8,223 for tuition, while the state spends $11,935 per pupil.

If the education bureaucracy, as its leader openly admits, cannot teach eighth-graders algebra, the state ought to let parents choose a school that can do the job. That would maintain high standards and set up students for success in college and the workplace.

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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