February 13, 2016

I am a veteran of the math wars. I was there in 1995 when the shiny new California Learning Assessment System (CLAS) test told graders to award a higher score to a student who incorrectly answered a math problem about planting trees -- but wrote an enthusiastic essay -- than to a student who got the answer right, but with no essay.

The genius responsible for that math question explained that her goal was to present eighth-graders with "an intentionally ambiguous problem in which no one pattern can be considered the absolute answer." Gov. Pete Wilson's education czar, Maureen DiMarco, promptly dubbed new-new math "fuzzy crap."

I was there in 1997, when a trendy second-grade math textbook featured a lesson called "fantasy lunch," which instructed students to draw their fantasy lunch on paper, cut out the food and place their drawings into a bag.

I've heard from young adults who aced high school math only to find themselves utterly unprepared for college math. So it was no surprise when Stanford University math professor James Milgram found that the number of California State University students who needed remedial math had more than doubled, from 23 percent in 1989 to 54 percent in 1997.

That's about the time when some parents, teachers and academics declared war on new-new math fabulism. They gained a foothold on local school boards and state curriculum committees. By the time they were through, trendy math educators no longer felt safe talking down to parents while agreeing among themselves that "there is no right answer."

A battle won, alas, is not won forever. A key win for true math enthusiasts was the California standard that called for eighth-graders to learn algebra -- and that standard has been a target ever since.

On Monday, the state Board of Education will vote on a proposal to adopt national Common Core State Standards, commissioned by President Obama and adopted by 27 states. If the board votes yes, as recommended by the 21-member state Academic Content Standards Commission, the Golden State's eighth-grade Algebra I standard will go the way of old soldiers.

Supporters of the Common Core standards argue that enrolling more eighth-graders in algebra doesn't necessarily make them learn. Yes, the number of eighth-graders enrolled in Algebra I grew from 16 percent to 60 percent today, the highest in the nation. But, they observe, only 27 percent of eighth-graders are proficient in the subject.

On the plus side, the ratio of African-American eighth-graders enrolled in algebra nearly doubled from 2003 to 2007. The percentage of CSU students who needed remedial math fell to 38 percent last year. Hoover Institution fellow Bill Evers, a grizzled math war vet, argues that while the math standard's gains may be incremental, they have elevated the prospects for many students who otherwise might be left behind.

There are parts of the Common Core Standards not to like. For example, the Obama standards follow the latest education trend of assigning more nonfiction reading and less literature than in the past.

There is a rift in the education community as to whether national standards will help students -- by creating uniformity for children whose families move from one state to another -- or stifle innovation.

Then there's the up-to-$700 million in federal funds -- available through the Obama Race to the Top initiative -- that California stands to win by aligning with the Obama standards.

Evers and his pal Ze'ev Wurman, a Palo Alto software engineer, were the two holdout votes on the Academic Content Standards Commission on adopting Common Core math standards. (They wrote a July 30 San Francisco Chronicle piece explaining their "no" vote.)

I have little doubt that Evers and Wurman drove their colleagues on the panel to distraction, as they are single-minded in their defense of California's eighth-grade algebra standards.

But as veterans of the math wars, they understand that once you've captured turf, you have to hold it. And they've had to contend with people who argue the war never existed, that there never was an ideological schism on how California schools teach math. I recall the educrat who told me, "The math wars are just an invention in the last few years of just a couple of people."

It makes a person chary.

Two years ago, the enemy -- well, their enemy -- tried to use President George W. Bush's No Child Left Behind policy to undermine the eighth-grade algebra standard. Now the standard is under assault from Obama's Race to the Top.

And Evers and Wurman are up against savvy operators who are dangling $700 million before ravenous school bureaucrats.

Said Evers, "When you realize that good teachers and good curriculum are more important than money per se, then you don't want to sabotage something that facilitates good teaching and solid curriculum."

A more apt statement may be what Roman gladiators chanted before the show: We who are about to die salute you.