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 firstname.lastname@example.org.