Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Farewell to algebra

Farewell to algebra” . . . for minority kids?

I seem to have touched a raw nerve with my posts about (government-approved) lower educational standards for minority kids. Is it possible that the common core standards will similarly lower the bar, this time for math performance?
Common core critics have noted that California’s new law on math standards will roll back California’s decade long effort to move as many eighth graders as possible into Algebra. As Bill Evers and Ze’ev Wurman (both former Department of Education officials) note, the algebra reform dramatically increased the number of minority kids who took Algebra 1 and beyond . . . and raised their test scores.
The results are a rarely-told story of stunning success in public education. In 1998, only 17 percent, just 70,000 of our students, took Algebra by grade eight. But this year, 68 percent, or more than 324,000 did.This translates to almost quarter of a million more students taking Algebra by grade eight. Not only had we successfully quadrupled the fraction of Algebra-taking by grade eight — which is a major accomplishment for those students and their teachers — but an ever larger percentage of students have over time scored “proficient” and above.
The success of minorities and students in poverty increasing their Algebra 1 proficiency was the most significant achievement. In 2003, fewer than 1,700 African-Americans successfully took Algebra by grade 8. By 2012, more than 6,900 did; that was more than a four-fold increase
In 2003, slightly more than 10,000 Latino students successfully took Algebra by grade 8. By 2011, more than 63,000 did; that was more than six-fold increase. In fact, more Latino students scored proficient and advanced on Algebra in 2012 than the total number of Latino students who took Algebra in 2003.
Now, some math educators have argued, to my mind persuasively, that “algebra for all”, especially in middle school, poses a threat to math education, by encouraging schools to dumb down Algebra 1. Here’s a “repost” of my earlier (August 9) blog posting on the topic:
. . . today I read an intriguing, and somewhat disturbing, article by Jacob Vigdor, a public policy and economics professor at Duke University. He argues that the drive to teach algebra to more students and at an earlier age has hurt our most academically-gifted students, by dumbing down algebra courses. He also adds the following very interesting empirical information:”
With Duke colleagues Charles Clotfelter and Helen Ladd, I’ve recently conducted an evaluation of an algebra acceleration initiative that occurred about 10 years ago in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school system. Students placed into algebra a year early ended up significantly less likely to complete a three-course college prep math curriculum – Algebra I, Geometry, and Algebra II by the time they completed high school.
But these research findings fail to absolve California, because the same new law that dilutes the algebra expectation also undermines math tracking. As Evers and Wurman explain,
SB1200 is so poorly drafted that it doesn’t just roll back the expectation of Algebra 1 in grade eight. It does more than that by requiring “one set” of standards “at each grade level,” and precluding typical mathematics course options for students in high school.
California high schools have always offered different math classes to students in the same grade who have different levels of preparation. Accordingly, California historically has adopted course-level math standards for high school — preserving local control at the district and school level to decide when it would be best to offer rigorous courses to each student based on the student’s ability. But SB 1200 would outlaw that practice by mandating only one set of mathematics curriculum- content standards, textbooks and training and teacher materials for all students in each K-12 grade.
Officials of Brown’s administration have offered rhetoric about how they will not have to implement the plain language of the law. But they do not have the statutory authority or capacity to violate the law’s provisions. Efforts to get around the wording of the law will lead to confusion about policy on curriculum, textbooks and testing — and hence invite lawsuits and re-ignite the math wars.
I don’t know how many eighth graders should take algebra, but I’m entirely persuaded, first, that we need to be ever vigilant about not lowering our expectations for disadvantaged kids, and second, that we need to be ever vigilant about not lowering our expectations for our most gifted students. Do these goals conflict? I hope not.

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