# Judge blocks algebra requirement for California eighth-graders

A judge has issued an injunction blocking the state from requiring all eighth-graders to take algebra.

Earlier this year, the state Board of Education had mandated eighth-grade algebra at the urging of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and some civil rights and education advocates.

Opponents of the rule included state Supt. of Instruction Jack O’Connell, the California Teachers Assn. and organizations representing school district leaders. They had argued that the state board exceeded its authority and that the board made the change without providing legally required public notice.

The groups had argued that more time and funding were needed to prepare all eighth-graders to succeed in algebra.

The judge’s injunction suggested that she was sympathetic to many of the arguments against the state board’s action.

In the Los Angeles Unified School District, more than half of eighth-graders, along with more than 2,000 seventh-graders, took algebra in 2007, but 21% of eighth-graders tested proficient. About two-thirds of those who failed the class passed on their second try.

At many low-performing campuses, the picture is more dire. At Gompers Middle School in Watts, for example, 30% of eighth-graders took algebra, and 15% of those scored proficient. Moreover, only 1% of students in general math, an easier course, tested proficient.

The state’s curriculum for eighth grade has long included algebra, and schools get penalized on their own report card, the state’s Academic Performance Index, for every eighth-grader who doesn’t take the algebra test.

-- Howard Blume

This is a wise decision. Requiring all 8th-graders to take algebra is like requiring them all to take third-year Spanish. Yes, it would be great if they could all speak and read and write Spanish, but first they need to take first-year Spanish and master that, and then second-year Spanish and master that. Likewise, students cannot learn algebra if they haven't mastered arithmetic, especially things like fractions. And by "mastered" I mean understanding why the algorithms work, as well as how they work.

Some understanding of algebra is essential to functioning in our society, from understanding credit and interest rates to understanding the statistics behind public opinion surveys and choices about medical care. It would be great if everyone knew algebra. But forcing students into courses that they're unprepared to take is not the way to bring about this knowledge.

We need better mathematics instruction in the elementary schools, possibly through better-prepared teachers, but if this doesn't happen, through using mathematics specialists. It's essential for preparing our kids for the modern economy, and is especially important in communities where many students now do not traditionally go on to four-year colleges. So I hope that this is not the end of the discussion about mathematics instruction for current and future 8th-graders.

Posted by: MathProf | December 19, 2008 at 02:21 PM

Finally, someone with some sense! Not every eighth grader is cognitively ready for algebra.

Posted by: Darcy | December 19, 2008 at 02:22 PM

Kids are obviously ready for Algebra at that age. Especially in the Far East, lots of students are proficient in Algebra by that age. But here, we don't have scientists and mathematicians running our school systems. Instead, they are mainly run by liberal science majors who don't believe that math is that important. That's why our university-level engineering and science programs are filled with foreigners.

Posted by: kristin | December 19, 2008 at 03:10 PM

I totally disagree. Finding a decimal representation of 23/2431 via long division is MUCH harder than adding a+2a. And the development of the skills of abstraction that lead to an understanding that 2a/a=2 will HELP those struggling to understand fractions. The system is upside down. Any 8th grader can start learning algebra while continuing to develop basic math skills. Personally, I can do a multi-dimensional integral, but if I need to know exactly what 8.5% of $85.43 is, I grab a calculator. And the only reason I know how to type that into my calculator is because I know algebra. The problem is that we beat it into their heads that if they can't do fractions, they are inherently "bad" at math which simply isn't true. I'm still bad at fractions, but I have a degree in physics because I learned how to put aside what was difficult yet peripheral and keep forging ahead.

Posted by: LL | December 19, 2008 at 03:10 PM

Good decision. This will help assure socal's vitally important supply of lawn-maintenance, car-wash, nanny, and house-keeping labor.

Posted by: John Galt | December 19, 2008 at 03:13 PM

Are you kidding me?..it's amazing how weak minded you have become!..Maybe a little algebra would have helped the sub-prime mortgage debacle...NEVER be afraid of LEARNING...what county are you in cause i'm moving out of that district...

Posted by: Pat t. | December 19, 2008 at 05:49 PM

Youth = A

Education = B

Aspiration = C

A + B + C = Success

(A + B) - C = Complacency

Posted by: Gary Lee | December 19, 2008 at 05:51 PM

I too have a degree in physics, but I don't think most people in our society have the slightest use for algebra -- and I bet most don't need to use a calculator, either.

Posted by: PeterPatnter | December 19, 2008 at 05:51 PM

Are all California judges complete flaming liberal idiots?

Posted by: steve | December 19, 2008 at 05:51 PM

Take a child development class. Read some Piaget or Ericson. Talk to a parent. Some kids can do Algebra in 8th grade; some can't. Why does it have to be mandatory, thus penalizing the kids who aren't developmentally ready for these abstract concepts at age 13?

I took Honors Algebra in 8th grade; I got a D. I took it again in 9th, and miraculously "got" it. I got an A.

Posted by: i've taught algebra to 8th graders | December 19, 2008 at 06:03 PM

It's a nice line to parade about in public that all students should take rigorous college prep classes, but the vast majority simply aren't prepared. Two natural outcomes ensue, or sometimes an unpleasant mix:

1) They fail in overwhelming numbers.

2) The overall level of instruction is pulled down so that the weakest students can get by. It is now a rigorous college prep class in name only.

I'd love to see every student learn Algebra, but nobody benefits by throwing them in unready. The people supporting algebra for every 8th grader should have to teach such a class for a few months.

Posted by: Altair Maine | December 19, 2008 at 06:03 PM

How many people commenting here have worked in education? How many have worked in education in the inner city with gangs and extreme poverty? I have been an educator for 8 years in the inner city of LA and I spent a year in one of the worst middle schools in Los Angeles.

I don't think we should be forcing our students to take algebra when they are not ready. But there is a good compromise- let students take algebra in conjunction with summer school so that the pace is much slower- extend the period of time in which to learn the materials. The kids can learn algebra but their basic math skills are poor and the teachers are mandated to follow a pacing plan which does not allow the time to review basic skills as necessary before a new skill.

I am not a "bleeding heart liberal" as someone else mentioned, in fact I am a conservative. But I am getting tired of politicians and others who have no experience in education legislating what I do in the classroom. They have no idea what types of situations are faced when teaching and what are reasonable solutions.

Posted by: Ginevra Shaw | December 20, 2008 at 04:26 PM

Here's another instance of the dumbing down of our public education system. We already pay more per student here than any other state, and they want more funding to teach 8th graders Algebra? I can just hear it now "We have to replace all of those coloring books....". Gee, I wonder why our companies can't compete with other countries. Look at that impressive workforce coming out of our schools.

Posted by: Mark | December 20, 2008 at 05:27 PM

While it is true that many students are not prepared for algebra at the 8th grade level, this is mainly due to the failings of math education, beginning at the elementary school level. Many teachers are uncomfortable with the subject of math (and science for that matter), and therefore allow it to take a back burner in the classroom. A general study of mathematics introduces students to the concept of algebra (albeit without the title) far earlier than 8th grade. It is a basic concept that is essential for many people, from astrophysicists to the guy trying to figure out how much sod he needs to plant your front lawn.

Requiring that 8th graders pass an algebra course is no different from mandating testing for high school graduation. They are simply trying to ensure that the "graduates" we're sending out into the world are of at least a minimum caliber to be effective human beings, rather than dregs to society.

Posted by: Julie | December 20, 2008 at 05:41 PM

They didn't even teach algebra where I was in 8th grade until my class...I was on a pilot exchange program with the local high school where I went to take the class with two other eighth graders (although I had already taken a self-directed word problems algebra class in 5th grade as an initiative to keep me out of the classroom as much as possible (my troublemaking era)). All three of us did better than average among the high school freshmen and sophomores...It launched me into high school though, as I ended up graduating a year early and managed to complete every math class offered at the high school by graduation, even though my emphasis was in foreign languages...

I think Algebra should definitely be taught earlier, probably 6th or 7th grade, but clearly if you're going to do that you have to get the kids up to speed in basic math(+-X/%) by 3rd grade so they can begin simple geometry in 4th and 5th grade. It wouldn't be fair to suddenly tell students they have to pass algebra to go to high school when their teachers have been babying them along in simple multiplication and division problems for 7 years... Schools have to be more responsible for how the students do than the students if education is going to continue to be a compulsory exercise that takes up most of our tax dollars...

Posted by: Peace | December 20, 2008 at 05:43 PM

My daughter really struggles with the way math has been taught. It goes at a rapid pace --often before a lot of kids have basic concepts down. Math/Algebra is learned through repetition and the homework is hardly that. 4-5 problems of a given sort, then it's onto some other thing that they have to do.

Not everyone is a "math" head, and requiring everyone do the same work at the same time is a prescription for a high rate of failure.

Posted by: callie | December 20, 2008 at 05:45 PM

Altair, I know you are right, but really that is just more work the schools need to do. Every step of every year should build on the one before it until each child that can be college ready IS college ready. Or to look at it the other way, if they are to be college ready at 12th grade, each grade preceding should be building toward that goal for each student. Not just in some mass inoculation, we-hope-they-get-it fashion, but individual tailored build up to get each of them where they need to be.

The high schools can't succeed if the middle schools fail, and the middle schools can't win if the primary schools fail. The sooner you find what the child needs to learn, and how, the sooner you can start on the path to getting there. Assuming the people involved can and will put in the effort.

The only good reason for them not doing algebra is because they really cannot do it. Not just not prepared, but really cannot handle the work involved.

Posted by: Bill T | December 20, 2008 at 05:55 PM

I'm wirht I've Got It and those who do not believe it should be required of all kids -- my own son has an extremely high IQ but was very young in his class and didn't "get" Algebra as well as many kids the first time around. At a different school he took it again and it was the best thing for him -- some kids there were taking pre-Algebra and that was right for them.

Even smart kids are ready at different times, so I can imagine what it does to those who struggle in school in general -- makes them want to drop out feeling like they can't cut it.

I'm as rigorous a parent as they come and braved through Honors math as an English major, but it was with great teachers and a lot of self-motivation.

For those who want to apply to tough 4-year colleges their pre-requisites are a guideline, which means Algebra in 8th but I think it's okay to postpone it as long as you include Geometry and trig. You don't have to get to calculus before you apply.

But why should everyone be geared toward that level? Community college or the workforce after high school are perfectly honorable. What we need are more apprenticeship programs for those who want to be productive citizens without college and advanced math concepts. We do NOT want them dropping out as "failures" like half our metro L A kids to anyway.

Posted by: jill | December 20, 2008 at 06:06 PM

Sorry, but we took algebra in 9th grade, and could have done it in 8th grade. Let's eliminate it because the teachers and kids can't "handle" it. But kids everywhere else can, somehow.

Posted by: Malby | December 20, 2008 at 06:26 PM

The state should require that every third grader read - since only 1 in 4 can. Until our kids can read we can't expect them to learn much else. The children are smart enough to know this. When will we learn?

Posted by: Deanna Cherry | December 21, 2008 at 09:33 AM

I bet that most of the 79% of LAUSD 8th graders who took algebra and tested as less than proficient received a passing grade. What does that say about the course standards? What was being taught in these classrooms? We should be thankful for testing because it gives us some insight into what is really going on in our schools and tells us what more is needed to bring our children up to basic standards to compete with better educated workers in Europe and Asia.

Posted by: D Anderson | December 21, 2008 at 10:55 AM

I don't know what the big deal is. I attended a private elementary school in Korea and took algebra in 5th grade. American education is so antiquated. Students can handle it only if the teachers can teach it and the students can pay attention.

Posted by: confucius | December 22, 2008 at 10:12 AM