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Algebra, all summer long


Photo by SEAN DONNELLY/STAFF

I spent one morning last week brushing up on my order of operations and other elemental algebraic concepts at Oakland Technical High School. Riveting stuff, and they do it for hours each day. The teachers break it up with various activities and challenges, though, and I never knew a math classroom could look so inviting.

Here’s one small aha! moment I overheard between a teacher named Mr. McCann and a boy who was momentarily stumped about adding positive and negative numbers:

McCann: “Think about it as a football game. You lost seven yards on the first play and then you gained four on the second play.”

Student: (pause) “Negative three?”

There are 11 8 of these summer algebra academies serving children from 11 Oakland high schools and middle schools. The kids at Oakland Tech had already taken Algebra I in eighth grade, but they will retake it next year. Other academies are designed to prep incoming eighth graders who will take it for the first time in the fall.

This is all part of a big push in Oakland Unified to help kids pass Algebra I earlier — and to do away with “tracking” by having almost all kids take Algebra I (as opposed to a slowed down version) by the eighth grade, a move our governor would definitely support. Algebra’s a big stumbling block for kids, and many wind up taking it over and over and over again.

According to Chief Academic Officer Brad Stam, about 60 percent of Oakland eighth-graders took the class last year. (In 2007-08, the most recent year data’s available, about 44 percent of the district’s eighth-grade Algebra I students scored “basic” or above on the STAR test.)

This fall, about 85 or 90 percent of Oakland’s eighth-graders will take Algebra I. Stam says some math teachers have begun teaching algebraic concepts as early kindergarten, and that more will be trained to do it.

Do you agree with this de-tracking approach? I’m writing a story about this in the near future, so if you have an opinion or know someone else who might, please call me at (510) 208-6424 or email me at kmurphy@bayareanewsgroup.com.

Katy Murphy

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

  • Steven Weinberg

    I do not agree with placing students who do not know basic math concepts in Algebra I. At the school where I last worked, when we increased the percentage of students in Algebra I from 30% to 50% we found that the teachers were unable to cover all of required material with any of the students, and our Proficiency rate for Algebra students dropped significantly. This year we grouped the marginal Algebra I students together and kept the more able student together and had large jumps for our scores on the district assessments.
    It is also interesting to note that the instructions from the district for selecting students for the summer Algebra academies emphasized picking students who would be able to succeed in Algebra I with this extra help, in other words, schools were not supposed to place the least skilled students in the Algebra academies. Nonetheless, those students will be required to take Algebra I in the fall.
    No state other than California is even attempting to place all students in Algebra I in eighth grade. All the math teacher groups oppose it. Math teachers at Montera, the middle school with the highest math scores, recently presented their unanimous opposition to the idea.
    State Superintendent Jack O’Connell opposes the Algebra I for all requirement.
    Almost no other districts have all their students in Algebra I.
    Take a look at Piedmont, for example. Only half their students take Algebra I in eighth grade, but 88% of those students test Proficient on the CST, and almost all their students complete Algebra I in either eighth or ninth grade. Oakland still has 25% taking Algebra I in the tenth grade.
    I have heard some argue that we must require Algebra for all because otherwise white and Asian students will get Algebra in the eighth grade, and Latino and black students will not. The state statistics do not support that claim. Many white students and some Asians do not take Algebra I in eighth grade across the state, and it is clear that there are far more underprepared black and Latino students in Algebra I classes than other groups.
    Algebra academies are an excellent idea, but requiring Algebra I for all eighth graders is not.

  • Rose

    I am for enabling all kids to achieve at their highest possible level. Unfortunately the flip side of the district’s plan is to hold back the kids who can do algebra in 7th grade and geometry in 8th. You recently posted a story about the Urban Promise middle school geometry class that had the highest test scores (http://www.ibabuzz.com/education/2009/06/04/dont-call-them-nerds-geometry-prowess-at-oaklands-urban-promise-academy/). Next year there will be no regular geometry class at that school. It will only be offered as an elective that must be taken at the same time as algebra. If you take additional math as an elective you most likely won’t be able to take music or a foreign language. This is the plan for high achieving math students in all middle schools. To me it seems like punishing them for their achievement.

  • ex oakland staff

    If you want to kill a music program, a real good way to do it is to make it impossible for kids who are good at math to participate in music. If middle school kids can’t take music, they are likely not to start up in high school, so this policy is going to really efficient at decimating secondary music classes.

  • Nextset

    I have destroyed a project I didn’t like once by loading it up with odious requirements until it collapsed. That is a very old trick. The amusing part is that the players don’t realize they were never supposed to succeed until it’s all over.

    This is no different.

    The real purpose of forcing inappropriate students into algebra is to wreck the math program and screw over all the students. You are presumed to intend the logical results of your actions.

    Repeat after me: “These are not real schools. These are not real schools.”

    In a real school the students are not placed in programs they are expected to fail. Algebra would be introduced in math classes early – say 4th and 5th grade on. Those who pick up would be identified and moved up to the higher math classes. Those who can’t grasp the concepts would continue survey courses while developing other talents that do progress to higher levels. If the child and family want him/her to take the higher math classes they would be allowed to enroll against advice.

  • Alice

    Gee this academy sounds great. Wish my daughter could have taken it, maybe she wouldn’t be taking Algebra for the third time this summer (also at Tech, where I daresay the class is not as “inviting” as Katy found this class). Will there be real support for the kids who struggle in math? Or will they just be expected to keep taking it until they pass, or get so fed up with a school system that is so completely unresponsive to their needs, that they just drop out.

    This reminds of a fractured fairy tale, Emperor Ahnold sends an edict out throughout the land that all the 8th graders shall take algebra. Only there isn’t any fairy godmother who can wave a magic wand and turn kids who have struggled in math for years into algebra scholars. Until and unless Oakland is going to commit resources to identifying and helping the kids who need it (and based on my experience they don’t have the will or people-power to do so), they have no business imposing a requirement like this.

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