## Thursday, July 24, 2008

### Algebra in 8th Grade Revisited

First, a fictional story about children in the state of Californialand
In Californialand swimming is a big deal. All children are expected to learn how to swim.

Some children start learning to swim when they are young. Maybe they have swimming pools in their back yards or the family has a beach house. Maybe they belong to the swim club. Some of these children even get to take swim lessons. They become very proficient swimmers and may even be on a swim team.

Other children don't have the same exposure to pools and beaches. But maybe the grandparents or the neighbors down the block have a pool. These children get intermittent exposure so don't have the same developed abilities as the children previously mentioned. They usually learn to tread water and dog paddle but they don't have developed swim strokes.

Other kids have minimal exposure to pools and beaches. Sometimes their parents are even afraid of the water and that fear is passed on to their children. Although these children may wade in shallow water, they really are not skilled swimmers and would not be considered "water safe".

Then a new law is passed in the state. All kids aged 12 years 9 months to 13 years 8 months must be thrown in the deep end of the pool to be tested for their ability to swim. They will either pass or fail.

It does not take an expert to predict what happens. The kids on the swim team, those with pools in their back yards, and those who take swimming lessons pass the test at an advanced level. They are ready for scuba lessons, ocean surfing, or the synchronized swim team.

Others, who get some exposure to pools and beaches, do fairly well. They do not have the stamina to swim 10 laps or do rigorous water sports but at least they are ready for the next level swim lesson.

Some kids can barely dog paddle to the side while their parents nervously watch with vicarious spasms of fear. No one can really say these are proficient swimmers and alas they fail the test.

And then there are still the few kids who have to be rescued while they panic and are not even able to tread water.

It is too bad that the Californialand Board of Swimming Proficiency, does not think to make sure that all kids are at least proficient swimmers before throwing them in the deep end of the pool.

But the state's rationale, according to the Governor, it that not exposing all children to the deep end of the pool by 8th grade, creates an equity issue. All kids should have the exposure to swimming in deep water by 8th grade otherwise, in their way of thinking, they won't be able to be on the swim team or learn to surf, and how fair would that be? So, throw the kids in the deep end and give them the exposure. No one could ever accuse the Governor of not providing education equity to all students.

The flaw in logic is that equity does not start in the eighth grade. To throw kids who do not know how to swim into the deep end is not equitable. It is trying to fix the problem with the wrong tool.
Back to Reality

Most thinking and compassionate people do not throw their children in the deep end of the pool to teach them to swim. But the State Board of Education, with the Governor's urging, has decided to throw all eight graders into Algebra.

Here is what some of the people on the National Mathematics Advisory Panel had to say about California's new policy, taken from the article entitled, Math Experts Question Wisdom of Calif. Algebra Rule, in Education Week:

Tom Loveless, Ph.D. in education, M.A. in special education, and an A.B. in English, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, Director of the Brown Center on Education Policy, classroom teacher for 9 years -
“It’s a shortsighted policy that confuses taking a course with learning. The state has not been serious about preparing kids for algebra—they’re just throwing it on the schools. It’s absolutely far-fetched." Also, policymakers there [California] were wrongly assuming that simply enrolling students in 8th grade algebra will result in more of them becoming proficient in the subject. An examination of students’ math course-taking and test performance shows that premise to be false.
Vern Williams, B.S. math education, teacher for 37 years, Math Counts Coach, teacher of the year Virginia 1990 -
California schools, when faced with the reality that many of their 8th graders are not ready for Algebra 1, will simply water down those courses and craft classes that are Algebra 1 “in name only.” Some students, even motivated ones, are not ready for algebra until 9th grade. By forcing students into that class early, schools risk not only discouraging struggling learners, but also holding back higher-achievers, who have to wait for classmates to catch up.“Sometimes, it’s strictly the [lack of] math preparation, but also, there are just kids, even bright kids who ... need to be exposed to a bit more math in 8th grade, or to a pre-algebra course.”
Skip Fennell, President of NCTM, B.S., M.S., PhD (bio did not mention subject), classroom teacher, Maryland outstanding mathematics teacher of the year 1997 -
“I’m all about raising standards, but I wouldn’t want to legislate that every 8th grader take a course in Algebra 1." When it comes to that course, we need to provide access—to kids who are ready.” The math panel’s final report recommended that schools move more students into 8th grade algebra—but only if they had received thorough preparation in whole numbers, fractions, and other concepts.
Russell M. Gersten, Executive Director of Instructional Research Group, PhD special education, nationally recognized expert in both quantitative and qualitative research and evaluation methodologies, with an emphasis on translating research into classroom practice -
California officials would be better off focusing on math preparation at early grades and making sure that courses called “algebra” offer authentic algebra. “The reality is that a lot of kids fail algebra. If anything, [that] makes them math-aversive.”

From the other point of view:

Theodore R. Mitchell, President of the California Board of Education, PhD history of American education, M.A. history, B.A. economics and history, college professor and administrator, congressional adviser -
“The research has been pretty clear that Algebra 1 is a gateway course. We wanted to make it clear we’re going to give all kids the opportunity to go through the gateway. We will not have a two-tier system in middle schools. We’ve been doing a terrific job of getting more kids into algebra. We see this less as a hammer than as urging the state to get across the finish line. The good news is we’ve never heard this level of conversation about what it will take.”
Matthew M. Gardner, the president and chief executive officer of BayBio, an association representing more than 400 Northern California life-sciences companies with 60,000 employees -
“The industry’s view is that California’s science and math education is falling behind. We should expect more from the kids in our school system and from the system itself.”
Arnold , Governor of California, actor, body builder (was unable to find details of education) -
“To do otherwise, would lower our expectations and continue to divide our children between those we believe in and those we leave behind."
I think the Governor is using rhetoric to scare people. The whole notion of "no child left behind", at its foundation, has little to do with school or curriculum. The number one indicator of how children do in school is zip code: where kids live and the wealth of their families.

If we want to ensure that kids are going to be prepared to compete in the global market we need to address inequities such as: Two parents working full time at Wal Mart do not make enough to live in the community where they work. They do not have enough money for the rent, the car, car insurance, car maintenance, clothing, good nutritional food, basic medical care, putting money away for retirement, let alone the computer so that the kids can do their school reports, or the internet so they have the same access to information that their wealthy counter parts have. Yet the CEOs of big companies receive severance packages, after only a few years of work, that blow my mind. THAT is inequity.

Until that kind of inequity is addressed, the poor kids will do poorly and the wealthy ones will be just fine.

Related posts: California requires Algebra 1 for all eighth-graders
California Dropout Rate and Money