The Algebra I War continues

Each side of the Algebra I duel — Superintendent Jack O’Connell and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger — sent out an e-mail blast today with quotes bolstering their respective positions.

Schwarzenegger’s office titled its blast “What They’re Saying… About the Governor’s Support for Algebra I in 8th grade.”

A few hours later, O’Connell’s camp sent its own press release headlined, “What Educators Are Saying…”


Here’s what Schwarzegger’s supporters had to say about the governor’s courageous leadership:

EdVoice Board Co-Chair Eli Broad: “Governor Was Willing To Take The Bold Step On The Path Less Traveled.”

California Business For Education Excellence: Governor Shows “Bold Leadership.”

Former State Board Of Education President Yvonne Larson “Applauds The Governor’s Leadership.”

Edison International Chairman And Chief Executive Officer John E. Bryson: Governor “Is To Be Commended.” “As a major California employer, SCE understands and appreciates the importance of a well-trained and educated workforce.”

California State University Chancellor Charles B. Reed Joins The Governor In Urging The State Board Of Education To Adopt Algebra I As The Mathematics Standard.

California Community Colleges Chancellor Diane Woodruff: “I Agree With The Governor.” “Overwhelming research has shown that Algebra is the gateway skill to success in both the workforce and in college.”

South Bay Association Of Chambers Of Commerce Chair Helen Duncan: “By Elevating Our Skills For The Next Generation, We Increase Job Opportunities For Our Local Community.”

Orange County Business Council: “Governor Is Taking Key Step Towards Securing Prosperity.”

Fresno Deputy Mayor Jeff Eben: “I Am Pleased To Support The Governor And His Efforts.”


We noted a glaring omission among the responders. There was a lack of input from teachers, principals, or district leaders.

Therefore, we wanted to supplement the Governor’s document with what educators are saying.

Steven Weinberg, Instructional Facilitator, Frick Middle School (Oakland): “More than half of our students come to us in the sixth grade Below Basic or Far Below Basic in Math. Very few of those students are prepared to succeed in Algebra I at the eighth grade level. So being forced to place all students in that class, without regard to their level of preparation, would lead to an increase in the number of students who both fail eighth grade Algebra I and are not ready to succeed in Algebra I in the ninth grade either.”

Kathy Woods, President, California Mathematics Council: “It is intellectually dishonest for the state to ask students to be tested on academic content that they have not studied.”

Christopher J. Steinhauser, Long Beach Unified School District Superintendent: “Experience has told us that not all students are ready to take Algebra at the same time, and a one-size-fits-all approach unfairly punishes students, often those who need our help the most.”

Jeff Hearn, Superintendent, Santa Maria Joint Union High School District: “Developmentally, many students are not ready to successfully take on the Algebra I curriculum.”

Dan Fendel, Professor of Mathematics (emeritus), San Francisco State University: “At the present time, many thousands of students are already enrolled prematurely in Algebra I and the failure rate is horrendous. The Governor’s plan would make this situation even worse.”

Stephen McCahon, math teacher, Pioneer High School: “We have a lot of students who take Algebra I in the eighth grade, and then they repeat it in ninth grade. A lot of students aren’t ready for that level of math.”

Chuck Weis, Santa Clara County Schools Chief: “You need to lay the groundwork if you’re going to make this kind of policy shift. We need to invest in the teaching of mathematics at the lower grade levels.”

image from crowolf’s site at flickr.com/creativecommons

Katy Murphy

Education reporter for the Oakland Tribune. Contact me at kmurphy@bayareanewsgroup.com.

  • Nextset

    Well at least the status quo has been upset. Where does the readership think all this will lead to? Improvement for the schools or not??

  • Fruitvale Res

    This is a political decision that ignores modern research – but what else can we expect of legislators who need to be tough on crime and have high expectations for ALL students. The simple scientific givens are:

    1. Algebra is dependent upon spatial thinking
    2. This particular type of spatial thinking is abstract
    3. Not all adolescent brains mature at the same rate and as a result
    4. Not all brains are ready for algebra
    5. In the end – we will have the same ratio of kids who feel that they are not good at math when the reality could be that they were not intellectually ready

    Instead of thoughtful consideration – this simply becomes high versus low expectations. It becomes an urban – black/ brown v. white – wealthy v. poor – excuses v. no excuses mentality. In the end this is great for politicians – but simplistic thinking that doesn’t serve our students.

    It is analogous to crime – any politician that attempts to even articulate the complexity of the issue will be labeled as soft on crime. Everyone must carry a big bat to even be considered legitimate.

    Aside from the scientific research that supports how this is a developmentally inappropriate expectation – I have my own life experience. As a dual engineering major I pushed to take two high level math courses simultaneously as a sophomore. My professor knew me well and told me that I was not mathematically mature enough – I though he was full of it until I had to retake a course one semester later.

    Our hope is that we can augment the simplification of complex topics through venues such as this blog and other educational forums.

    For those who want more…the National Mathematics Advisory Panel submitted the following to the President this year…

    “All school districts should ensure that all prepared students have access to
    an authentic algebra course—and should prepare more students than at
    present to enroll in such a course by Grade 8. The word authentic is used
    here as a descriptor of a course that addresses algebra consistently with the
    Major Topics of School Algebra (Table 1, page 16). Students must be
    prepared with the mathematical prerequisites for this course according to
    the Critical Foundations of Algebra (page 17) and the Benchmarks for the
    Critical Foundations (Table 2, page 20).”

    The emphasis here being “more” in lieu of “all.”

    For more reading see…

    The emphasis is clearly high standards but it does not dip into the realm of ALL students – which is the pitfall with the Governors plan.

  • Chauncey

    Not in Oakland. System is to tainted. Oakland is doomed as DC, Open effective charter schools or plan a voucher / scholaship program for families in poor areas of Oakland. God knows their children are most likely doomed at OUSD.

    This system should be eliminated. Let the market correct itself will not apply to OUSD.

  • Nextset

    What’s really going on here is a clash between the “all people are born equal” crowd – who have the upper hand in this change of policy – and the other view which is concerned about what is about to happen at the urban schools when this policy hits the classrooms.

    I have no illusions about what will happen when the school districts are forced to tell the urban students that Algebra, not just general math, is required of them and if they don’t manage it they will be failures. Only silly people whine racism in the face of the already stark numbers of the competency scores by race. People who can’t cut general math will be lost completely in Algebra.

    Or do we expect the teachers to somehow fix all this and “make” the kids master the subject? Of course – some of them (urban kids in public schools) will master Algebra – we can easily project how many. The All People Equal boys expect the teachers to convert perhaps a majority of the students to competency in Algebra – they may be lying when they say this (politiians do lie) or they may actually believe it. Either way when it doesn’t happen the teachers and schools will be blamed not the students. So CTA get ready.

    A lot of people are going to have a lot of drama when the ability to downgrade to general math only is lost – teachers, students and administration.

  • Jake

    Nextset, you’re practically a troll.

    After asking for what the forum thinks, you can’t wait more than two responses before chiming in with a baiting, simplistic comment. The philosophical frames you are trying to lay onto the opposing sides here just do not fit. But that’s not important to you. The only one whining about racism so far, is you!

    Fruitvale Res, thank you for your comment. I see the issue more clearly having read it, and I’ll probably be pointing other people towards your analysis.

  • Nextset

    Some people just can’t handle free speech, or anything else free, like markets.

    It makes me feel just fine to point out issues that others prefer to pretend don’t exist. And if they react by whining, so much the better.

    Personal attacks on another blogger because the writer doesn’t agree with their observations or viewpoints is the hallmark of a child blogging as an adult – or an adult acting as a child. No problem, it is part of the blogging experience.

    People that indulge in such behavior are not taken seriously in public discourse or in society.

  • Jake

    Nextset, how would you like your speech (screeds, really) to be handled? Do you want us to fawn over your descended wisdom? Is it such an oppressive thing to have someone point out, directly, the flaws in your rhetoric?

    As far as personal attacks, I’m at a loss. Perhaps you mean me, for criticizing your misleading and manichean summaries, or perhaps you mean yourself, for dismissing my criticism as “things that whiny white liberals always say…” (Not an exact quote, but near enough I think.)

  • Nextset

    Jake, you are interesting. Tell us something about yourself – such as education and experience.

  • Jose, Former Student

    Fruitvale Res,

    I am glad you were not one of my teachers in school. Based on your theories I would still be working on a taco truck. I had teachers who made me spend more time “working” on my math and that made a world of differences.

    The public schools spend less than an hour preparing students for math each day.

    Could it be they should spend more time (90 minutes per day) in the lower grade levels preparing students in math and higher percentage will be prepared to take and pass Algebra in the 8th grade?

    This has proven to be a very effective method in China.

  • Mario


    Read all of these bloggers language, and that is the reason why minortities do not blog or participate in such scenes. We simply aint ready or adept to understand the jargon or some of the BS of the “educated.”

    All this talk of Algebra, have you guys taken a look at reading and math scores for the minority students residng in OUSD<

    The fact of the matter is, many teachers cannot wait to water down texts. It happened to me and all of my buddies within OUSD.

    Truth is Algebra may be in fact be too abstract for some students; but if you tell that to an ultra liberal who cannot wait to toss a math book away, their students will lose knowldege but gain idealisms.

    That is the core of the Algebra I stance in my opinion. It is making sure the teachers will teach and not stray from course matter like most inner city middle and high school classrooms do.

    I studied Algebra in the 4th grade in Mexico; and did well. But have you all seen the education situation there? Algebra should be seen as a gatekeeper for assuring teachers teach, more than if students will go to college. We sure as heck cannot rely on the unions to assure teachers teach.

    Mario Ramirez
    Former OUSD student

  • Fruitvale Res

    Jose –

    I understand your response – just not how it relates to my original post. We must expect the most of all of our students at all times.

    Hopefully you read the link I posted – if not – I still suggest it. However – if you believe that every single student in California will be ready for Algebra by age 13 – then we will never have room to debate.

    It is great to have the student voice as a part of this conversation.

  • another mom

    Algebra and Geometry are still considered high school subjects in most school districts. Here in Oakland, my children had to take Algebra in 7th grade and Geometry in 8th. These two classes are required for high school graduation but are not accepted as two of three high school classes needed. Why are we pushing are kids so hard so fast? One of my children had to repeat an advanced math course in high school because he was simply was not developmentally ready for the concepts. When my children were in middle school there was no choice of math. It was either the Algebra and Geometry or general math which was no more than a remedial math course. Where will all this insanity stop?

  • Nextset

    To the comment of “why are we pushing these kids so hard so fast”…

    1> If you work children like hamsters on a wheel they have less energy for getting in trouble.

    2> The world is getting more dangerous than in the 1970s-1990s. Kids need to be ready to shoulder adult responsibilities and decisions at age 19. Working them harder at 12-16 increases the chance they will survive the responsibility and the choice. Especially if they’re black, because the odds aren’t as good and they’ll need the edge.

    3> We/I like them better if they are pre-stressed and we don’t have to do so much housebreaking of a bunch of 19-25 year olds.

    4> Kids appreciate what adults go through to keep the lights on and gas in the tank when they have been worked harder. A lazy kid is a mouthy, insolent kid. A kid from a school that seriously challenges him/her whether academically or vocationally is better able to understand and fit in my world instead the playground lots of them live in now.

  • Debora

    I hear a lot of discussion about readiness, and the ability to think abstractly.

    Do our schools have the mechanism in place to assess students coming into sixth grade for readiness for abstract thought?

    What I see is that if parents want to assess for anything other than standardized testing they must push for it early and often.

    Those teachers who blog here – Do you know how and when assessments are done for intellectual and abstract ability? Are these assessments routine, or would they need to be requested?

    Also, I know the teachers (three that have answered the question) at my daughter’s school do not read the report cards from past years of the students entering their class, unless the student is on an IEP, do the teachers in middle school review the report cards or other assessments of the children entering into their math classes?

  • Jake


    I agree with you that teachers should cover the whole book, as much as is possible. However, the current structure of state wide testing encourages the opposite.

    Teachers are pressured by district administrators, principals, and even other teachers, to drill for the test (in time for the test) instead of total coverage and mastery.

    That’s why I’m generally against lockstep rules, and especially against adding more without broad input.

    Every, every, every student should take Algebra… But not necessarily by 8th grade. It’s not what’s best for all students, and it has little do to with taking it easy on them.

    Debora, there are some assessment tools out there to measure abstract thinking. For several years, OUSD has been involved in the MARS tool, for one.

    Nextset, I find many of your comments to be condescending, dismissive, and occasionally repulsive. Why should I share personal information with you? If you would like to post under your real first name, and say more about yourself, I would consider it.

  • Sue

    I’m not trying to start anything here, but I want to answer a couple of Nextset’s points.

    1> If you work children like hamsters on a wheel they have less energy for getting in trouble.

    They’ll have less energy – period. Energy that could be used in positive ways, as well as “getting in trouble.” When my kids are over-worked, they tend to get sick. I do too when I’m over-tired. The body needs its resources and energy to resist illness and heal injuries, so it’s possible to take this idea to extremes that harm instead of help. Gotta balance those work loads and recovery time.

    2> The world is getting more dangerous than in the 1970s-1990s…

    There’s no evidence that the world is more dangerous now than in the past. None. Higher crime statistics are the result of better reporting, not more crime.

    3> We/I like them better if they are pre-stressed and we don’t have to do so much housebreaking of a bunch of 19-25 year olds.

    I suspect liking a new employee is a whole lot less important in the grand scheme of things than “housebreaking”. Respecting competence, follow-through, and completing assignments independently on time would all count much higher where I work. Likability is a nice-to-have, but not really critical to adult success. The most successful people are rarely the most well-liked.

    4> Kids appreciate what adults go through to keep the lights on and gas in the tank when they have been worked harder. A lazy kid is a mouthy, insolent kid. A kid from a school that seriously challenges him/her whether academically or vocationally is better able to understand and fit in my world instead the playground lots of them live in now.

    YMMV – this doesn’t come close to describing most of the kids I know. They mostly aren’t over-worked, over-scheduled and over-stressed. And they’re mostly polite, pleasant and respectful of others. The most difficult kid I know is also the most challenged and stressed, and most of his difficult behavior is reacting to the challenges and stress that he can’t escape. When he gets some down time to just play and be a kid, that’s when he’s most pleasant to be around.

    Like I said under the first point, it’s important to balance the work and relaxation time. Too much of either is not going to be helpful, and might be harmful.

  • Debora

    If my neighborhood is anything like a normal neighborhood in Oakland, the kids play in each other’s yards, the local church court yard and ride their bikes around the block or two near our homes.

    2 Boys – 7 Girls, all respectful in adult presence, decent to each other, some are exceptionally bright, some in the middle, some on the low end. Two born with fetal alcohol syndrome – adopted by a single mom, various races, religions, family dynamics.

    None are hamsters.

    Some are more scheduled than others, but none so scheduled that they do not have a minimum of 3 hours per day for free play in addition to homework (4 are attending some type of summer school), chores and dinner with their respective families –

    All are housebroken.

    Some have varying degrees of stress, some parent induced, some self induced, some societal induced.

    None are criminals.

    All are great kids – I love having them in our yard – love listening to them work out their differences – love when they work together for a lemonade stand (average of $65 profit after paying for supplies) – love when they spend the night at each other’s homes (houses, apartments, duplexes) – would love to see them treated more respectfully on this blog.