“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.


  1. Ami Chopine

    I don’t think they conflict. I think it’s possible if we’re willing to get more individualized with each child, track them with testing, create a good school environment, and use a curriculum that is evidenced based.

  2. KMarx

    It is good that low IQ minorities are not allowed to learn. This will keep them in their place.

    If they are allowed to leave the plantation there is no telling what might happen to our gated communities.

    • Mary McConnell

      Hey, my great grandfather came over from Ireland and dug graves in Boston. His son – my grandfather – won a scholarship to the Boston Latin School, and eventually became a high school principal. Never should have let ’em off the boat!

  3. maia

    having taught the 8th grade common core already, i don’t think it’s that far off from algebra 1. the entire focus of the 8th grade common core standards was algebra — graphing lines, finding patterns and representing them numerically, graphically, in a tabular fashion and with pictures, solving and graphing systems of equations, etc. there were some geometric concepts, too – pythagorean theorem and volume, but those were easily relatable to algebra, given the formulas.
    now, my colleagues in the grade below complained a lot about their new standards, and i can’t really comment on whether or not they truly prepare the students for the 8th grade algebra focus (since we’re only in year 2 of implementation) but i will say that i like the 8th grade standards and think they will have students quite prepared to take algebra 1 as freshman.

    • Mary McConnell

      I appreciate comments from a teacher who’s actually “on the front.” I don’t teach math, though I do teach economics and have therefore witnessed firsthand some of the math issues confronting students.

      I suspect that many students are not ready for algebra in 8th grade, and they’d be much better off with a strong pre-algebra curriculum. But surely many students ARE ready. I took algebra in 7th and 8th grade, which enabled me to take calculus in 12th grade. I’m no math wizard, so I have to believe that many of our students are ready for this challenge by 8th grade.

      Do we really have to choose?

  4. A.T.

    Students may be taught as early as fifth graded provided they must master basic computations: multiplication, long division, and fractions, manually. I taught my son algebra when he entered 4th grade. This year, 5th grade, he is doing fine with introduction in trigonometry. At grade 3 he did all the basic computations correctly and quickly, with just pencil and paper. In Asia and Europe, students begin to learn Algebra at 6, or 7 grade.

  5. BooMushroom

    The best policy would be individualized instruction for each student, where they are encouraged and pushed to go at their own, best pace.

    In the real world, where we can’t afford a student:teacher ratio of 1:1, having two or more tracks for each student based on ability (not on age) seems like a decent choice.

    I went from pre-algebra in 8th to Geometry freshman year, and then Algebra II in sophomore year, and despite a head for numbers and good grades in math, it took me a while to get caught up, as Algebra II assumed a foundation that I simply hadn’t acquired yet. But I did catch up, and went on to two years of Calculus, so it worked out okay, I guess.

    • Mary McConnell

      My own children’s experiences were similar. You might want to loop back to my earlier post – a link is included in this one.

      Students often get stuck at some point. We need to work with them until they break free. No subject is more undermined by social promotion than math (and the many disciplines that depend on math.)

  6. Piltdown Ghost

    The two goals are only in conflict if students are not put on tracks in accordance with their academic ability. This is true even if the curriculum is “dumbed down”.

    A roomful of gifted students with a dumbed-down algebra curriculum will learn it very quickly, and the teacher will either accelerate the class or the students will goof off. Assuming we’ve learned that “playtime” is the bane of gifted classes — and any competent educator of the gifted will tell you it is — the teacher will have no choice but to keep the education coming past the limits of the curriculum.

    Some people are against tracking by academic ability. Taking that away AND adding less-qualified students into subject areas they really have no business being in is a recipe for the sort of disaster you’re worried about. But as long as you keep the slow students separated from the quicker ones challenging the slower ones with harder material is perfectly fine.

    • Mary McConnell

      I agree entirely – no surprise. But I worry that a combined push to move more students into algebra earlier and to avoid tracking by ability could create the worst of both worlds. Is that necessary? Absolutely not.

      One of the ironies of today’s education debate is that we teachers are bombarded with exhortations to “differentiate” learning according to individual student needs. But the easiest, most cost-effective, and in most cases most effective ways to differentiate are a) grouping students by ability, and b) allowing parents and students to choose among different schools and their different approaches in order to find the best match between child and school. Neither of these strategies is popular with most of the “differentiated instruction” crowd.

      • Piltdown Ghost

        Everyone is in favor of tailoring education to individual students’ needs but no one wants to group students based on the similarity of their needs? That is indeed ironic.

        Home schooling would seem to meet both requirements. So these reformers strongly favor home schooling, then? (I am valiantly trying to keep a straight face here …)

  7. Robert Arvanitis

    Right answer — we teach children algebra not so that two decades from now they can find the vertex of a parabola, but so they can think algebraically*.
    *A further benefit is knowing there are techniques for different questions, which puts them just a Google away.

    This, from the opening of “Autocrat of the Breakfast Table,” by Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr.:
    “I was just going to say, when I was interrupted, that one of the many ways of classifying minds is under the heads of arithmetical and algebraical intellects. All economical and practical wisdom is an extension or variation of the following arithmetical formula: 2+2=4. Every philosophical proposition has the more general character of the expression a+b=c. We are mere operatives, empirics, and egotists, until we learn to think in letters instead of figures.”

  8. Evil Sandmich

    Why is it that many conservatives turn into communists when it comes to education, preferring equal outcomes rather than equal opportunities? Not everyone has the same level of academic talent any more than everyone has the same level of sports or business talent.

    • Mary McConnell

      There is a big difference between trying to assure equal outcomes and codifying outcomes on the basis of race. If opposing the latter is communist, well, I guess I’ve been a fellow traveler all along.

  9. Oak Norton

    Utah adopted the Common Core under several false premises. One, that the standards would be more rigorous. They are not. We used to strive to have algebra completed in 8th grade and now under CC it’s pushed to 9th. Utahns were told that these standards were internationally benchmarked and research based. That is completely false. We were told that this would allow for better comparisons of our students with other states. That is false because Utah adopted CC math with the integrated option which only Vermont chose. This blends the curriculum so instead of discrete years of math like almost every other state, we mix algebra, geometry, trig, etc… into each grade level. This opened the door for the state office to push constructivism as a pedagogy which is having the effect of dumbing our children down even further. The USOE has told teachers in some of their trainings that they no longer need to teach standard algorithms or have children learn the times tables and long division. This battle was fought in Alpine School District in the last decade and it’s tragic that it’s now moving statewide. Common Core won’t individualize education for each child, it will standardize them. Some curriculum being created and used in Utah schools has outright propaganda in it like that of Jordan and Granite school districts where the outcry has caused the schools to tear pages out of their books. There are significant privacy concerns for our children too. Get more facts at http://www.utahnsagainstcommoncore.com.

  10. cathyf

    I have both a freshman in college and one in high school. Their public high school has an “honors” version of freshman English and sophomore English, and nothing else. So if you take algebra in 8th grade (as they both did) then your geometry class consists of everyone from freshmen to seniors — and the seniors are students who have taken 3 years to successfully complete Algebra I. In the 4 years since my son took geometry the subject matter has been noticeably dumbed down — the “proofs” have gone from being trivial so as to form clear examples to so trivial as to cause your brain to liquify and flow out your ears!

    My husband teaches college physics, and the #1 problem that they face in the sciences are students who simply cannot do algebra well enough to take Physics I/II or General Chemistry.

    It’s frightening to contemplate a world where virtually no high school graduates will be competent to study math, engineering or science. Or to solve a Sudoku puzzle…

    • Mary McConnell

      I wish we had more discussion about our failure to provide sufficient challenge for gifted students. I wonder, however, if the rise of online courses may offer these students more options.

      • cathyf

        I don’t believe for an instant that online courses will have positive effects.

        Look, for at least a century, the New York Public Library has had all of the information for a PhD-level education in a huge variety of subjects. Completely free for the taking — all you have to do is go to the reading room and read the books. For the millions of inhabitants in or near NYC, the library is a short, cheap ride away on public transportation.

        So we all know how brilliantly educated all of those New Yorkers are, right? For generations, right?

        The internet is not a substitute for a teacher, and it’s not a substitute for studying. It is a substitute for paper and ink in textbooks — and while it does a fine job of that, the value of textbooks shouldn’t be overstated.

      • Mary McConnell

        Online courses have teachers (I’ve taught a few myself.) They also have assignments, discussion, tests, and most of the features you’d find in a classroom. But they can be offered to a classroom of one, which can be a huge advantage for a student who wants to take a course, such as calculus, that his or her school does not or cannot offer.

        I’m very skeptical of claims that online education will replace traditional school. But I believe that online courses can provide a valuable supplement and, in some cases, alternative.

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