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Confusion in California


I get the feeling sometimes that the rest of the country sees California from afar as some sort of Bohemian enclave, with grapes on the vine and iPods in the vending machines. So as we head into the fall, I am here to give you a bit of an update from the land of milk and sunshine.

California schools improved their scores on the state’s reading, writing and math tests, but the achievement gap persists for African American and Latino students. Furthermore, even though more schools raised their scores on the state’s Academic Performance Index, more of them FAILED to meet increasingly demanding federal targets, which are ratcheting up as we approach 2014, when, according to NCLB, all students are expected to be proficient.

Nearly ten percent of the state’s high school seniors – almost 46,000 students -- did not receive diplomas last year because they failed the high school exit exam. That was a big jump from the six percent that failed to graduate the year before, because for the first time, the numbers included special education students, who are required to pass the test as well. Among this group, 46% failed. Our State Superintendent of Public Instruction, Jack O’Connell, insists that these students should be held to the same high standard, stating "Special-education students deserve a diploma that has real value and real meaning." Unless, of course, they fail the test, in which case they apparently deserve no diploma at all.

California schools, we are told, have the “highest standards in the nation.” That’s why the state Board of Education, at the behest of Governor Schwarzenegger, recently decided to require all 8th graders to take Algebra. The State Superintendent Jack O’Connell responded by submitting a $3.1 billion request to the governor to pay for smaller class sizes, teacher training and summer programs that such a shift would require. Not that any such money will be actually provided – this is jousting, you see.

Meanwhile, due to a $15 billion deficit, our state legislators and governor have failed to meet a July deadline to pass a budget, and the schools are receiving only about 70% of the funds they are due, causing severe hardships, including crowded classrooms.

As an educator in this state, I have to admit that these conflicting mandates and divergent indicators make it difficult to know if we are on the right track. State tests show we are improving, but the Feds say we are losing ground. One board says everybody should get Algebra in the 8th grade, but clearly many of our students are not ready. Meanwhile, the state has no budget, and the schools are getting less money than ever. How can we reconcile this confusion? I think many teachers look around and see chaos, and rather than getting involved, they simply hunker down and try to weather the storms. This is a big loss, in my view, because classroom educators have an important voice on all of these issues. Teachers should be involved in setting coherent and achievable goals, at the federal, state and school district levels. Middle and high school math teachers should be consulted before Algebra is mandated for all 8th graders, and a serious plan should be developed to improve instruction and build the scaffolding needed to reach such a goal.

Policymakers have become accustomed to issuing mandates from on high, and teachers and students subjected to these mandates have not raised our voices loud enough to be heard on those lofty heights. Reform policies will not succeed if they are not grounded in the realities of the classroom, and if they do not engage the active and enthusiastic participation of teachers and students. Barack Obama suggests that change comes from the bottom up, and I think he is right. Our schools will improve when teachers and students are inspired by a vision of their own capacity to make them change.

What do you think? Is California unique? Is there any direction emerging from current efforts to reform schools at the state or federal level? How can we get some clarity and unity of purpose?


I absolutely agree that teachers ought to be involved in shaping policy regarding curriculum, standards, etc. The hunker down and wait for the next change approach is ultimately undermining and does little but guarantee that nothing ever works.

I am a good distance away from California, so I could be wrong, but I thought that the push for Algebra was a result of aligning the testing to what the standards already required. In other words, algebra content was already required to be taught, but the fact that algebra content was going to be included in the testing meant that now it REALLY has to be taught. I could be wrong, but I thought that was how it came about. Again, I don't know so much about California, but I know here at home, the state standards were developed with beaucoups input from teachers. This is one reason that they end up being so all-encompassing, no one wants to give up on their pet beliefs about what goes where--so everything gets thrown in (everywhere).

A Dr. William Schmidt at Michigan State University has done some study of state content standards, and particularly in comparison to those in other countries. We tend, by comparison, to be all over the map at all grades (the mile wide, inch deep phenomenon). I am guessing that most states are about ready to re-think their initial go-around with standards. I also suspect that teachers will be a bit more giving at this stage (having spent some time struggling with some of the 1.0 monsters that were created).

I don't have any definitive answers on whether kids can learn algebra by 8th grade, or what the magic number is with regard to the cost of education. I do know that there are countries in the world that are doing far better teaching math and science than we are. I also know that no country spends more on education than we do. I also know that only 1-2% of students with disabilities are afflicted by cognitive disabilities (and permitted alternative testing as a result). I believe, with Jack O'Connell, that students with disabilities are entitled to a meaningful credential--and further that years of inadequate services and accommodations, coupled with exclusion, inadequate expectations and teachers with insufficient content training have contributed to the 46% failure rate. I have watched my own district wait until the last moment on every change that is required of them. I watched as they feigned surprise that the "special schools" with "extra services" that they recommended would be "better" for my son with disabilities, weren't really providing much education at all. To their credit, once they had to include these kids in their accountability system--and report their scores publicly--things began to change. Still not there--but it has brought about improvement.

In California, up to this point, Algebra is offered but not required at the 8th grade level. I devoted an earlier blog post to this controversy back in June when the proposal was adopted. There was some vigorous dialogue then. http://blogs.edweek.org/teachers/living-in-dialogue/2008/07/algebra_for_all_8th_graders_dr.html


Clicking on your link, and then again on the first link in your earlier blog-post, there is an article that states, in part,

"California was forced to move on the issue because it has been under pressure from the U.S. Department of Education to meet an Aug. 1 deadline to align its testing program with its state math standards in 8th grade. While more than half the state’s 8th graders already take algebra and are tested on it, the rest are tested on 6th and 7th grade general mathematics skills."

That says to me that the algebra content was already required by the standards--but that (some) students were being tested at a lower level. Am I missing something?

I believe the standards included Algebra content, but I know as a former middle school math and science teacher, many 8th graders in our schools are not ready for Algebra. The fact that it is mandated by standards, included in the state's tests, or required by the Federal government for compliance with NCLB does not make the students any more prepared. Unfortunately these decisions are all being made far from the classroom with little input from teachers.

Anthony: I didn't have time to google all the way back to 1997 when the mathematics standards were adopted to ensure that my impression is accurate that California had a process similar to that in my state, however, the names of the people who served on the writing committee are listed in the standards. I did look at the current requirements for curriculum commissions--which I would gather is the next step between standards and classrooms. Appointments are made by both the Governor and the State Board, with requirements for a heavy representation of current teachers (I also noted that there was an application process available on the website). Recommendations further require presentation to the field, public comment, etc. I would suggest that standards writing and review underwent a very similar process.

I think that there is a fundamental rejection of the idea of standards on the part of many teachers that leads to this impression of decisions being made "far from the classroom with little input from teachers." It seems as though anything other than allowing every teacher to make their own curricular and content decisions is viewed as bureaucratic intrusion. I suspect that in the intervening decade since the adoption of the mathematics content standards many teachers have been simply waiting for a change in administration in the hope that they would go away and they wouldn't have to risk being involved and thinking about what responsible standards for all students might look like, or to say publicly that algebra might be fine for the kids in the suburbs, but the kids in the inner city can't get it. How else to account for the seeming surprise when suddenly they are expected to live up to standards that have been in place for ten years?

Sorry to say, there are other explanations for teachers to object to standards, even ones that have been in place for ten years.

First of all, if you investigate the genesis of California's math standards, you will discover an epic battle so great it was called "The California Math Wars." The whole process became highly polarized and politicized, and in fact I do not believe the expertise and wisdom of classroom teachers was drawn upon. I do not want to engage in a rehash of that battle here. If you do a search for California Math Wars you will find numerous descriptions from a variety of perspectives, such as this one: http://mathematicallysane.com/analysis/mathwars.asp.

The decision to mandate Algebra for 8th graders is, I believe, an extension of the policies that "won" in this war. I do not believe students have been well-served by this polarization, and one of the reasons I think teacher expertise would be helpful is that I believe it might inhibit the policy gyrations that we are seeing.


I tried to follow your link, but it didn't work for me. I did google California math wars and found some information--pretty much a microcosm of the larger math wars. What I did not see was evidence of some foreign (do I detect the suggestion of bureaucrasy?) element pushing teachers around. What I see is disagreement among members of the teaching profession, and somewhat less centered on the appropriate year for teaching algebra and more on the fuzzy (conceptual) vs concrete (factual) approaches.

Standards cannot heal this rift amongst mathematics teachers--but they, if adhered to, can keep kids from getting caught in the crossfire. I am not a mathematician, but I can share my personal learning experience from growing up in a district that was on the cutting edge of "new math" when it was still experimental, before it was incorporated into commercial text-books. From grade 2 when the experiments began we were exposed to algebraic concepts (such as sets, properties of addition and subtraction, conceptualizing with manipulative stickmen the carrying process). Without this highly conceptual approach I would not have survived math. I know this because I had a stubborn fifth grade teacher who pulled out the "old" math books to teach long division by rote. It was a gruelling experience. I still remember those smeary papers with holes in them from erasing over and over again. That is the reality of my classroom experience--as a student.

But to go back to your original question--I think that your presupposition that teachers are of one mind and policy makers of another (and wrong) one that is being laid on teachers, is fundamentally flawed. Within most decision-making processes regarding school reform the voice of teachers is not only present, but significant. This doesn't mean that every individual teacher gets (or should get) what they individually want.

Teachers absolutely have a stake in teaching, but there are others (parents, students, colleges, the businesses who hire graduates, etc) who have a stake in learning.

I do not suggest that teachers are always of one mind and policymakers of another. I do suggest that decisions such as the recent one to require Algebra of all 8th graders have been made without adequate participation of classroom teachers -- or even many of the other stakeholders.

Here are comments from a recent meeting of the California School Board Association: http://www.csba.org/NewsAndMedia/Publications/CASchoolNews/2008/July/ElectronicOnly/8thGradeAlgebra.aspx

One sample quote:

"Claremont Graduate University education professor and former school superintendent Barbara DeHart closed the institute’s general session offerings with an analysis showing that major components of the federal No Child Left Behind Act lack any firm basis in research—and she extended that criticism to the state’s new algebra requirement."

"Recent studies, she said, have found that ninth-graders are dropping out of school because of pressures related to NCLB. The push for eighth-grade algebra proficiency, DeHart said, 'is a big part of that pressure.'"

In fact, this group has sued the state to block the implementation of 8th grade Algebra (http://www.sacbee.com/101/story/1220659.html)

Articles such as this one in the Los Angeles Times, http://articles.latimes.com/2008/jul/10/local/me-algebra10

reveal that there are forces such as "California Business for Education Excellence" that are pushing this agenda. (see http://www.cbee.org/)

The fact that nearly every math educator I see quoted on the subject comes out against this policy suggests that, on this issue, teachers DO have a different stance than policymakers. (see this blog entry: http://www.teachforever.com/2008/08/why-californias-plan-for-algebra-for.html)
The outcry and despair that emerged once this decision was made is evidence of the disenfranchisement of teachers on this subject.

I agree that teachers are not the only stakeholders that need to be involved in making these decisions. But I disagree with your assertion that this controversy is based on disagreements between educators. And here I am focused primarily on the recent decision to mandate Algebra for all 8th graders in California. You said you failed to find evidence of some “foreign” element pushing teachers around. Here is a recent article
in the Los Angeles Times, which features quotes from the California Business for Education Excellence, which apparently lobbied for this policy. http://articles.latimes.com/2008/jul/10/local/me-algebra10

There is also ample evidence that the State Board of Education reached this decision without significant input from many of the stakeholders you named, including teachers. In fact, the negative reaction has been so strong that the California School Board Association has filed a lawsuit to block the policy. http://www.sacbee.com/101/story/1220659.html

Notes from their July meeting meeting reveal their thinking. http://www.csba.org/NewsAndMedia/Publications/CASchoolNews/2008/July/ElectronicOnly/8thGradeAlgebra.aspx

One sample quote: “Claremont Graduate University education professor and former school superintendent Barbara DeHart closed the institute’s general session offerings with an analysis showing that major components of the federal No Child Left Behind Act lack any firm basis in research—and she extended that criticism to the state’s new algebra requirement.”

“Recent studies, she said, have found that ninth-graders are dropping out of school because of pressures related to NCLB. The push for eighth-grade algebra proficiency, DeHart said, ‘is a big part of that pressure.’”

Virtually every educator I have heard from on this subject opposes this policy. This blog post by Tom DeRosa is typical, and lays out a clear case for a more rational approach. Tom writes:

“The truth is that this plan won't solve anything. Students who are unprepared for the course will fail, and become more averse to and frustrated with math than they already are. This policy raises the bar without giving the students any tools to get over it! The majority of students I've had either had no confidence in their math abilities, hated math, lacked the basic skills needed to tackle the course, or all three. The plan will compound existing problems, and force schools to focus more on standardized test prep at the expense of actual learning, which is all thanks to the well-known limitations of No Child Left Behind.” He goes on to propose thoughtful changes in the way math is taught, so students will be better-prepared for higher math in high school. http://www.teachforever.com/2008/08/why-californias-plan-for-algebra-for.html

In this case, at least, teachers and other important stakeholders do not appear to have been adequately involved in this critical decision, and in fact, were ignored. Standards may keep students from getting caught in the crossfire, but if they are ill-considered and poorly matched with reality, students will suffer nonetheless, as is evidenced by the drop-out statistics.


The Brookings Institute has weighed in on the 8th grade Algebra controversy with a new research paper that raises serious questions about the wisdom of the new state policy. The lede states: "The new state policy of requiring algebra in the eighth grade will set up unprepared students for failure while holding back others with solid math skills, a new report has concluded." See the LA Times Here: http://www.latimes.com/news/education/la-me-algebra22-2008sep22,0,6234035.story?track=rss

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