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Thursday, August 14, 2008

Algebra For All Eighth Graders

Here we go again. Another example of education reform by fiat . Another example of education reform without supporting infrastructure.

California 8th graders will be required to take Algebra 1 and be tested on it as part of the state’s accountability system, under a controversial decision made by the state board of education last week after last-minute pressure from Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Why don't we just fail the kids right now and save some money?
Mr. O’Connell said in his own letter to the state board that requiring all 8th graders to take algebra would especially be hard on African-American and Hispanic students who, as demographic subgroups, are still not even scoring at the proficient level “on what amounts to 7th grade standards.”


Education officials so far have offered no details about any budget impact from the move. But providing support to get teachers ready to teach algebra to all 8th graders could be difficult given a California budget deficit estimated at $17 billion at one point, which has forced cuts in all departments, including education.

Don't get me wrong. I am all for higher standards and greater expectations. It is not surprising that studies show “that taking algebra in middle school is linked to higher mathematics achievement in high school.” The problem is that students lack the “foundational skills” for algebra such as fractions and (believe it or not) place value.

The students who struggle the most with the abstract nature of algebra are those who tend to lack “understanding around the key big ideas” throughout elementary math, said Terry Vendlinkski, a senior researcher at the National Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards, and Student Testing at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Liping Ma has famously documented that American elementary math teachers lack “profound understanding of fundamental mathematics”. How are these teachers supposed to teach what they themselves do not know ?

James M. Rubillo, the executive director of the Reston, Va.-based National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, pretty much agrees.
”We’ve seen a lot of schools trying to mandate Algebra 1, and the failure rates are very high,” he said. “It doesn’t necessarily take into account the readiness of the students or the capability of the teaching force.

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