Saturday, July 12, 2008

California requires Algebra 1 for all eighth-graders

Wednesday, the California Board of Education voted to require Algebra 1 for all 8th grade students. The decision was made after a last minute push by Governor Schwarzenegger. Superintendent of Public Instruction, Jack O'Connell, vehemently disagreed with the Board's decision. Only one Board member, Jim Aschwanden, sided with the Superintendent.

Alas... Call me a pessimist, but I don't think there will be enough "highly qualified"* middle school math teachers to cover the increase from the 34% of students currently taking Algebra 1 in the 8th grade, to the 100% of 8th grade students who will be taking that course three years from now. And that is the tip of the iceberg.

Before I continue to rant, I want readers to know that Algebra 1, in the 8th grade, was the hardest math course I ever took. Compared to Algebra 1, calculus was a piece of cake. Suffice to say that there was weeping over homework (and I like math).

The Algebra Story

More than ten years ago, the California educrats (the ones in Sacramento - I'm feeling snarky), decided to make Algebra part of the California Mathematics Standards for 8th grade. For plenty of students, the opportunity to take algebra in the 8th grade makes sense. Many students are even ready to take algebra in the 7th grade, and a few special students are ready in the 6th grade. But, about half the students in California (and that is probably a conservative estimate) are not ready for algebra until sometime in high school.

Did the Governor or the Board of Ed ask for the opinions of the teachers that teach these courses? The teachers will tell you that even students who are somewhat successful in algebra are most likely not proficient in fractions, decimals, and percents, let alone more basic arithmetic. Or how about the public? The voters? At least eight out of ten adults tell me that they either hated or were not good at math when I tell them I am a math teacher or majored in math in college. It is almost like a confession or an apology,
"Oh, I was terrible at math. It was my worst subject."
"Don't worry about it. I promise I won't make you solve fractions or train problems."
Fantastical Thinking

If I were the Goddess of mathematics education in California (thankfully I'm not), I would opt for introducing basic algebraic, geometric, and measurement concepts in elementary school, then going into more depth in middle school. I would also insist upon mastery of fractions, decimals, and percents by 8th grade.

Continuing with that fantasy... The students who are particularly adept at mathematics could pursue the higher levels in high school and those that have not mastered the basics by then could take courses that ensured mastery by graduation from high school. The California Exit Exam could be weighted toward testing for the math that everyone needs to know: arithmetic (including fractions, decimals, and percents), measurement (standard and metric), problem solving (including solving basic equations), and estimation.

In my imaginary world we need to be able to compare prices on gallons of milk or liters of pop, to figure out our income tax, our checking account, and our 401k, to know if the sale price of the tires is correctly calculated and if we receive the correct change, to tip the waiter appropriately, to make certain we are not being cheated on our bill, to estimate the cost (including tax) of the car we want to buy or the new carpet we need in the den.

Jim Aschwanden, the descenting California School Board member mentioned earlier, was quoted as saying,
"Not all children are developmentally ready to take algebra in the eighth grade."
Many people think this way. I believe, however, that with a homogeneous culture (which we don't have), rigorous mathematical training in the early grades (which we don't have), and a cultural consciousness that we can all do math well (which we also don't have), most students would be developmentally ready to take algebra in the eighth grade and thus nearly 100% would be adequately proficient in algebra by the completion of middle school.

Back to Reality

Unlike California children, most 8th grade students in Singapore and Japan seem to be developmentally ready for algebra by eighth grade. This may have been a motivating factor for the School Board's decision. I applaud the kind of thinking that encourages Californian/American children to be prepared to compete in the world market. A one-shoe-fits-all plan isn't going to work in California.

My predictions:
  • Math teacher shortage in middle school
  • A compounded education funding crisis
  • Watering-down the algebra curriculum to avoid failing huge numbers of students
  • More parents will be paying for math tutors in middle school
  • Eventually 9.5 out of 10 people will tell me they hated math or were not good at it in school

See AP articles California to require algebra taught in 8th grade, Calif. mandates algebra for all eighth-graders and an excellent article by Dave Ellison of, Requring eigth-grade algebra makes no sense

*No Child Left Behind Act

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