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Why our kids struggle in math: It all adds up

Submitted by on Tuesday, 25 November 2008 No Comment
Am I smarter than a fifth-grader? Jury's still out on that, but I did flunk sixth-grade math last night.

Big Guy's cousins came over after school, and everyone decided to do their homework immediately instead of grumping and flinging pencils close to bedtime. Or maybe that's just Big Guy.

One cousin was rolling right along on her math until an unfamiliar algebra equation threw up a road block. As the only person over 5-feet tall in the room, I felt a certain obligation, so silly me volunteered to help.

Big Guy enjoyed it immensely as I began to struggle, too. "You're not a Math Master, are you?" he accused. Superior academic status thus confirmed in his mind, he began to offer advise. "It's simple," he sighed. "One hundred plus 100 equals 200. That's your answer!"

Ay, but that's not the question. The question for me at least is, are schools trying to prepare children at an early enough age to do the type of math an 11-year-old is expected to master? And are there enough qualified teachers to do it?

Those questions are relevant in a state that wants to start testing eighth-graders in algebra three years from now.

Like many education "reforms," the goal behind the algebra mandate is good and noble: Get California kids up to speed on the math skills they need to be competitive.

The logic behind it, though, is flawed on two fronts.
  • It's another standardized test
  • It's another standardized test thrown out with three years' warning, forcing fifth-graders to rapidly make up six years. Three years is barely time enough to teach the test, let alone the concepts.

The "algebra tests for all" policy was dreamed up this summer as California looked for a way to appease federal officials upset with the state's math test. The state could have written a new exam but, under pressure from Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, decided to instead drop the weight of the full algebra exam on junior highs.

The move was popular with the No Child Left Behind set -- you know, the folks who like to spend $1 billion a year on reading programs that don't work. It wasn't so popular with teachers, who joined a lawsuit to block the test.

Even the state schools superintendent admits the test would be expensive: $3.1 billion a year, much of which would go for teachers. Just half of California's eighth-graders take algebra now.

Money aside -- not that it's easy to put money aside in today's climate -- there's also the fairness issue.

A study The Education Trust released today shows that unqualified teachers are more likely to be in high-poverty classrooms and at schools with a higher percentage of Latinos and African-Americans. Racial issues are one reason a judge agreed to block the new test until there was time for more public input.

But back to Big Guy and his alleged mathematical genius.

It's smoke and mirrors, based on the fairly low standard of being able to count and write numbers to 30. And, while there's nothing wrong with encouraging little bugs by giving them an ego boost, there's something wrong with a system that gives math homework only every couple of weeks while the governator talks about its importance.

Particularly if that same system expects kids to be on track to pass an algebra test by eighth grade.

Copyright 2008 Debra Legg. All rights reserved.

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