Debra J. Saunders

1997 saw the height of the Math Wars in California. On the one side stood educrats who advocated mushy math -- or new-new math. They sought to de-emphasize math skills, such as multiplication and solving numeric equations, in favor of pushing students to write about math and how they might solve a problem. Their unofficial motto was: There is no right answer. (Even to 2 plus 2.) They were clever. They knew how to make it seem as if they were pushing for more rigor, as they dumbed down curricula. For example, they said they wanted to teach children algebra starting in kindergarten, which seemed rigorous, but they had expanded the definition of algebra to the point that it was meaningless. On the other side were reformers who wanted the board to push through rigorous and specific standards that raised the bar for all California kids. Miraculously, they succeeded, and they took pride in the state Board of Education's vote for academic standards that called for all eighth-graders to learn Algebra I.

Now many of those who fought on ground zero are afraid that the current board members will vote to undermine that standard. Earlier this month, many of those educators wrote to board President Ted Mitchell, urging that the board reject a vote they believe would undermine the Algebra I standard. The board tabled the measure until later. The fight continues.

Because this is an education issue, educratese obscures the issue, so bear with me. Understand that while the board members maintain that they voted to make Algebra I the standard for eighth-graders, there isn't an explicit requirement. The official Mathematics Content Standards for California Public Schools has a chart that lists Algebra I as a math standard starting in the eighth grade, but, with a nod toward local control, it is not explicitly required for the eighth grade.

Still, it is clear the board saw Algebra I as an eighth-grade standard because it put in place incentives for local districts to teach Algebra I to eighth-graders, and disincentives for not doing so. And they worked. The proportion of eighth-graders taking Algebra I grew from 16 percent at the beginning of the decade to more than half of eighth-graders today -- and some of those students are taking higher-level math. Supporters say the goal is to have all eighth- graders in Algebra I by 2014.

Debra J. Saunders

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