May 7, 2015

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.

Enter the No Child Left Behind bureaucracy. The federal law requires eighth-graders to take a test aligned to the state standards for that grade -- instead of giving one test for the Algebra I students, and a below-grade-level math test for the rest. The choice for state educators: Make all students take the algebra test right away, make all students take a tougher general math test, come up with an alternative test or negotiate a deal to allow the state to give two tests until a given date.

The board was considering a blueprint by state schools chief Jack O'Connell for a tougher general math test. Good. Except that O'Connell's staff also says -- and this is where the fighting starts -- that Algebra I was never an eighth-grade standard. "There's a state desire for all eighth-graders to take algebra, but that is not the official standard," said spokeswoman Hilary McLean. They use the fact that the standard has yet to be met to back up their argument. "They've always wanted a safety valve for the kids who weren't ready yet because the system wasn't ready yet," said Deputy Superintendent Rick Miller.

And if it's not the standard, why bother?

EdVoice policy director Bill Lucia fears that the gains made by African-American and other minority students will vanish. He cited an EdSource report that showed that the proportion of African-American eighth-graders taking Algebra I had nearly doubled from 2003 to 2007. "Notably, the percentage of these students who scored advanced or proficient on the Algebra I (California Standardized Tests) also increased from 17 percent to 20 percent."

Said Lucia, "You threw a bunch of black kids in the algebra class and typically the education establishment would say now you're going to create a problem, because fewer kids are going to pass. But what do you know? More kids are able to take it. More kids are passing, too." To Lucia, this is no time to throw in the towel.

Where's Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who appoints state school board members? "He doesn't micromanage the board," answered spokeswoman Camille Anderson.

Miller denied that O'Connell wants to eliminate the standard. He told me that there's more information today, so O'Connell simply wants the board, with the input of teachers, principals and superintendents, to have "a good, open, honest conversation" about the eighth-grade Algebra I standard.

Which he also says doesn't exist.