I didn’t want to write this column because some friends, colleagues and some younger family members whose views I respect, will strongly disagree.

But two newspaper articles on May 10 left me with little choice. First there was an article in The New York Times calling out current conspiracy theories including “ Virginia is eliminating advanced math in schools to advance racial equity.” Then I picked up the San Francisco Chronicle to find that fantasy had turned to fact. The State Board of Education was considering revamping the state’s math framework for K-12 students. Calculus might no longer be essential and Algebra 1 might be pushed out of middle schools. California decided to require Algebra in eighth grade about 25 years ago, then made it an option 10 years ago.

Now state officials are recommending to delay the course until high school.

***

This is bad news for so many reasons. It’s bad for students who excel in math and get bored in class if they are not challenged. And these are the students we need to fill those jobs where companies go overseas to find employees. It’s bad for the students who are not good at math because they will need these skills one day to find decent paying jobs. It’s bad for the country where we need to survive in a very competitive global economy.

Right now, U.S. students score at the bottom of the pack compared to other industrialized countries.

Math achievement of American high school students in 2015 fell for the second time in a row, pushing the United States down to the bottom half of 72 nations and regions around the world that participate in the Program for International Student Assessment. Among 35 industrialized nations that take the test, the U.S. now ranks 31st. The trend continues. It will only get worse if these policies are adopted and implemented.

***

It used to be that middle school and high school math was usually taught by college math majors. Today, very few math majors go into teaching because they can find higher paying jobs elsewhere. So if you have teachers who really don’t know math or are afraid of it, their students are going to suffer the consequences

***

In the early 1980s, Jaime Escalante became a math teacher at James Garfield High School in east Los Angeles. The school’s students were primarily Latino from working class families. These students were far below their grade level in academic skills. They also had low self esteem. Escalante tried to change the school culture to help the students excel in academics. He set a goal of having the students take AP calculus by their senior year by motivating them and offering additional help. He persuaded his students they could control their futures with the right education. He promised them that they could get jobs in engineering, electronics and computers if they would learn math: "I'll teach you math and that’s your language. With that, you're going to make it. You’re going to college and sit in the first row, not the back because you're going to know more than anybody."

The students begin taking Escalante’s summer classes in advanced mathematics. As students struggled with lower expectations, Escalante worked hard to teach and encourage them. One of the students said, "If he wants to teach us that bad, we can learn.”

They passed the AP calculus exam. But the testing service questioned the success of the students, insisting there was too much overlap in their errors and suggesting the students cheated. Escalante insisted the allegations were based more on racial and economic perceptions. He offered to have the students retake the test months later, and the students all succeeded in passing the test, despite having only a day to prepare. Hence the movie “Stand and Deliver.”

Escalante was almost fired for his unorthodox methods but a new principal embraced his ideas and overhauled Garfield’s academic curriculum, reducing the number of basic math classes and requiring those taking basic math to take algebra as well. He denied extracurricular activities to students who failed to maintain a C average and to new students who failed basic skills tests.

***

Let’s give the students who are behind in math and other courses the extra help they need, summer school programs, individual tutoring. And most important access to good pre-schooling. This costs money.

Eliminating algebra or calculus because it’s too hard is the cheap answer but a more costly one in the end. If you agree you should contact your legislators and the State Board of Education because it is not a done deal yet.

Sue Lempert is the former mayor of San Mateo. Her column runs every Monday. She can be reached at sue@smdailyjournal.com.

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(7) comments

Terence Y

Congratulations Sue, you actually make some sense when you stay away from politics. As Ray commented, I’d sure like to hear from friends and colleagues and younger family members who strongly disagree with your POV. Actually, I’d prefer to become their financial advisor. In fact, how about I share 10% of my 20% commission with you, as a finder’s fee? So on a $100k investment, does that mean you’d earn $10k, or just $2k? Oh, those darn word problems.

Ray Fowler

Good morning, Sue

If you have friends and acquaintances who disagree with today's column, I hope they post some comments supporting their point of view. I'd love to hear why anyone thinks our public schools should implement less rigorous academic standards.

I'm not a numbers guy, but when I last checked, California schools ranked 37th in the nation in education. Even without an algebra background, most folks can agree that ranking is solidly in the lower half of all states. Before the pandemic, the LA Times reported that 40% of California students were performing below the state's math standards. So, the answer is to "dumb down" math requirements?

You are correct to encourage readers to speak out on plans to eliminate algebra and calculus.

Tafhdyd

Hello Ray,

I am a little late to the discussion but one item comes to mind when school progress and performance is mentioned. Not having kids in school I don't have first hand knowledge but talking with parents and teachers, the subject of No Child Left Behind used to come up regularly. It sounded good on the surface but from what I remember the problem was it became "teach to the bottom rather than teach to the top". Schools or districts that wanted to do things in a different way or introduce advanced concepts were restricted by the NCLB policy. Possibly lack of funding if you didn't do it the way of the federal guidelines? It may have been bipartisan but I think it was signed in by Bush, I am not sure if it still in effect. Some of the other readers may have more pertinent info.

It is coming up on 5PM in Chicago so I think I will check the menu.

Ray Fowler

Tafhdyd

I like your suggestion... we need someone with public school experience to help us out in this discussion. It's my understanding the No Child Left Behind Act expired about half way through Barack's second term. He signed the Every Student Succeeds Act. Four years later, 40% of public school kids are below their grade level in math. I don't think that's Barack's fault.

I really don't like trying to assign "fault" to this issue. Let's just start trying to fix it. If we don't... we're raising a "Do you want fries with that?" generation.

How does money fit into the public education equation, and how can funding make a difference? Massachusetts and California both average about $82,000 for teacher salaries. Their schools rank No. 1 and we are No. 37. But Massachusetts spends about $20K per student to our $14K per student. Are kids who score low on math competency tests in districts that have less than $14K to spend, and kids who do better in districts with more cash per student?

Coming full circle to Sue's column... will eliminating algebra and calculus help improve our schools in any way?

Tafhdyd

Ray,

Last question first, no I don't see dropping algebra helping anything.

Money and Mass-Calif. Not sure how it all fits but there is one item that doesn't show up. Parent involvement. Schools within a district almost always score higher with higher educated parents and their involvement with the kids. San Mateo-Foster City elem school district is all one district yet schools have a wide difference in ranking. Some of the schools are in the upscale neighborhoods with $2 mil homes and parents that are professionals or able to have one parent home and see that homework is done. Other schools have a high number of lower income, both parents working just to pay rent, and a lot of minority students. They try to do their best but there are only so many hours in the day.

The subject brings to mind the meme that was going around after the first month of the shut down due to Covid. Parents found out that the school and the teachers were not the problem.

Oops, got to go, it's 5PM here now.

Mike Harris

Ray & Taffy,

I am a retired teacher from RWC. NCLB, RTTT, Common Core ALL dumbed down the curriculum available for teachers to use.

Most teachers have SOME level of choice to "add content" to what they teach and will use alternate resources when available. When I was teaching, I joined National Council Teachers Mathematics (NCTM) for a fee and got my administration to purchase it for me. A wonderful resource for extra challenging projects.

It seems to me that the 3 federal programs are attempting to mandate (in order to get federal education funds) "one size fits all." Every classroom teacher must teach all the students in their classroom, from the low performing to advanced. Teachers in "low performing" student classrooms are really stuck on Common Core now.

So, school districts opting to remove advanced math programs, instead, fund help (stigma not withstanding) for struggling math students rather than dumbing down curricula for all.

Tafhdyd

Thanks for the info Mike, it kind of supports what I had heard years ago. The one size fits all and teaching to the low end of the scale.

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