Thursday, July 24, 2008

Algebra: Do the math

Do the math: Algebra mandate's a formula for failure

By Jack Stewart and Bob Balgenorth - Special to The Bee

California eighth-graders currently rank 44th among the states in math achievement. But despite this embarrassing showing, California has just become the first state to require every eighth-grader in public school to enroll in Algebra 1. While the goal is admirable, its application is flawed.

Even as middle school math scores plummet, the California state Board of Education, urged on by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, voted 8-1 to require every eighth-grader, ready or not, to take algebra.

Never mind that many sixth- and seventh-graders in California haven't even mastered basic math skills – or that we have a critical shortage of qualified math teachers – or that this mandate will cost billions of dollars.

Worse, we're spending money we don't have on a program that's not even proven to succeed. An investment of this magnitude should be based on data, not blind hope. After all, this money could be used to fund proven programs – such as career technical education – or look to fund promising concepts like preschool for all.

If the logic of teaching algebra to students who cannot do basic math escapes you, you're not alone. "It's going to be a firestorm in our state," says state Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell, who strongly opposes the plan. "We're setting every school up for failure."

Board member James Aschwanden, the only dissenting vote, agrees: "Not all children are developmentally ready to take algebra in eighth grade." If poor math achievement is the problem, is the new algebra mandate the answer? Let's do the math.

According to figures released this week by the Department of Education, about one in four California students drops out of high school – and the numbers are higher in many schools serving poor and minority students. Forcing students to take algebra in the eighth grade without adequate preparation will likely increase dropouts.

California already has too few qualified math teachers – and the problem is worse in schools serving poor and minority communities. Lacking instructors, students in these schools will be least prepared for the new requirement and will suffer disproportionately as a result.

For years, reform advocates have argued that our education system should be run more like a business – where challenges and solutions are scrutinized, cost-benefit analyses performed and decisions based on facts. We agree. Businesses also tend to invest their precious capital wisely, to ensure the biggest bang for their buck.

Conversely, the state Board of Education is spending billions of dollars on a mandate that is not only unproven but also widely unpopular – even our state schools chief expects it to fail. This is no way to run a business, or a taxpayer-funded education system.

The unintended result? Programs like career technical education – which have proved successful at increasing graduation rates and preparing students for well-paid, highly skilled technical jobs – will lose more funding and curricular space to accommodate the new mandate.

In addition, tens of thousands of students will not be allowed to enroll in CTE or other electives in middle school if they haven't mastered algebra. This lack of student enrollment will kill the remaining CTE programs.

Tragically, even fewer students will graduate with the technical training needed by California businesses – and with fewer CTE options, more students will opt out of school.

Eighth-graders already have the opportunity to take Algebra 1 as an elective. But if all eighth-graders are required to enroll, students who are already struggling will have even less time to master the basic skills they need.

We must set high academic standards for the next generation. But these standards should be well thought out and achievable. The new algebra mandate is neither. The governor and the Board of Education need to revisit this ill-considered decision before they do real harm to our public schools.
Bob Balgenorth is president of the California Building and Construction Trades Council. AFL-CIO.
The co-chair: Get Real.
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