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Algebra Debate Rages in California

September 2, 2008

Last July, California's Board of Education decided that by the time the state's students are in the eighth grade, they had better know the x's and y's of algebra. The reactions to this decision have been decidedly mixed.

Keith Devlin of Stanford University—he's NPR's "Math Guy"—noted that "few people know what algebra is." Moreover, he said, "I doubt if the politicians promoting this have any idea what they're promoting."

Algebra, Devlin told the San Francisco Chronicle, is a precise language that schools fail to teach adequately. "Most of us who become mathematicians do so not because of our education but in spite of it," Devlin pointed out. "We're turning kids off a subject that is useful and incredibly interesting and beautiful if taught correctly."

"You can store information using it. You can communicate information using it," Devlin said. "Google has made billions capitalizing on algebra."

Devlin would like to see "mathematicians in residence" at middle and high schools. They would demonstrate to students the cool side of the subject—like how an iPod uses algebra to play music. "At any age," he said, "we will take the drudgery as long as we see a reason to do it."

Former UC Santa Cruz mathematician Paul Lockhart blames the school system for erasing the joys of learning mathematics. "If I had to design a mechanism for the express purpose of destroying a child's natural curiosity and love of pattern-making, I couldn't possibly do as good a job as is currently being done," he once wrote in an essay. Lockhart favors self-discovery: letting students explore the hows and whys of mathematics by solving problems like unraveling a puzzle.

San Francisco schools Superintendent Carlos Garcia is on the other side of the algebra debate. "I believe everybody can learn algebra," he said. "I'm just not sure everyone can teach algebra so that the kids understand it and make it fun." But he disagreed with California's across-the-board mandate. Garcia supports local decision-making based on resources, including the number of qualified teachers.

"My fear," said state Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell, "is it's going to turn kids off and contribute to the dropout rate." O'Connell has estimated that it will cost California $3.1 billion to train and recruit teachers while boosting student proficiency in pre-algebra and arithmetic before the requirement goes into effect in 2011.

Teachers, meanwhile, say that middle-schoolers won't be prepared. "Our plea is, 'Algebra when ready,'" said Hank Kepner, president of National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. "We would not want to put an age level on it."

Businessman Jim Lanich, who approves of California's decision, said that schools should ready students at each grade level. Algebra is eighth-grade math, he said. Lanich is president of California Business for Education Excellence.

"The kids are leaving fourth grade now that will be required systemwide to take the eighth-grade Algebra 1 test," Lanich said. "We have three years to get them to grade level."

The Center for the Future of Teaching and Learning, in Santa Cruz, has argued that the state doesn't have enough qualified teachers to do the job. In a July report, it stated: "Scant attention has been paid to this critical issue, and California's approach to math instruction still doesn't add up."

Source: San Francisco Chronicle, Aug. 25, 2008.

Start Date: 
Tuesday, September 2, 2008