Monday, January 30, 2006

Graduating From High School

I was going to write about this LA Times article, but Joanne (see blogroll at left) has already taken care of it. Then again, that's never stopped me before, so here's my take.

California requires the passing of Algebra I (an 8th grade course, according to our state standards) as a requirement for graduation, in addition to getting 220 credits, passing 4 years of English and 2 years of math, the passing of the exit exam (Class of 2006 is the first, finally!), etc. The LA Times has written about how horrible it is that diplomas are being denied students whose only problem is the fact that they can't pass Algebra I by the time they're 17 or 18 years old. Joanne offers some more details and commentary, including what's done at Downtown College Prep in San Jose, which, not so coincidentally, is the subject of her book Our School. One of Joanne's commenters hits the nail on the head:

The header for this article reads in part, "Because they can't pass algebra, thousands of students are denied diplomas." It seems to me that the students who do not receive diplomas are not being "denied" said diplomas, but they in fact have failed to earn them. Failure to learn this lesson at an early age only reinforces an entitlement ethic and sets these young people up for failure and bitterness as they progress from high school to the working world. A diploma that means nothing is worth exactly the same, nothing.

The real problem isn't that the students can't pass algebra, it's that in some cases they haven't been prepared to pass algebra. Granted, some don't help themselves (like the girl who missed 62 out of 93 days in the semester), but a healthy share of the problem seems, to me, to be this observation:

At Cal State Northridge, the largest supplier of new teachers to Los Angeles Unified, 35% of future elementary school instructors earned Ds or Fs in their first college-level math class last year.

Some of these students had already taken remedial classes that reviewed high school algebra and geometry.

Don't be so surprised. And the NEA and CTA want to keep American Board for the Certification of Teacher Excellence from providing alternative teacher credentialing here in California while keeping our state university programs in tact, focused on fuzzy, and patently irrelevant. Way to go, unions.

I'm a math teacher and I can write reasonably well, my spelling is rather exceptional, and my reading abilities are at a level at which I can comprehend college texts. A college graduate in any subject who cannot pass underclass high school math is unworthy of teaching our nation's children--and you can quote me on that.

Update: click here to see my latest post, and how it relates to this one. Appropriately enough, it's called When Are We Ever Gonna Have To Use This? And I answer the question. Kind of =)


Coach Brown said...

Hmmmmmmmmmmmmmm, I think this is where we disagree.

I nailed a "D" in Algebra, and had to take college level Algebra (Intermediate Algebra) 3 times before I could pass it. I don't see Algebra as a basic necessity for high school, or college for that matter. It sure the hell doesn't help students do simple things like calculate interest rates, balance check books, and do simple personal finance stuff that is needed for survival. You would be surprised how many Trig students still can't figure out their monthly payment on their credit card.
I can read and write at post-graduate levels (well, maybe not write anymore. Out of practice), I have excellent critical thinking skills and have the ability to present logical arguements (although not tastefully sometimes. Too much Imus watching).
But if you flopped an Algebra exam in front of me, I'd be the first to say that I'm going to fail it. I even had a good Algebra teacher, I simply don't click with it.
In the end, I think that Algebra should not be a consideration in high school graduation, since it really doesn't have the weight in realistic society that basic personal finance math does, something not nearly taught enough.
Bah, I'm just a damn math hater. Scarred for life. :(

Darren said...

Then we disagree.

Superdestroyer said...

Sorry coach but if you can really do Algebra then you can actually use software like Excel for something other than a glorified wordprocessor.

If you do not want to work in the IT industry, most of medicine, and lots of other industries then you can skip Algebra.

However, you may have a better argument in that there has been little benefit in powering down Algebra to the lower grades. 20 years ago Algebra was a 9th grade subject. Now it is an 8th grade subject and is quickly heading for 7th grade.

Maybe more American kids would be succeeding in Engineerng and Sciences is that were not trying to place out of Calculus I in College and jumping into higher level math classes.

Daryl Cobranchi said...

I'm with the coach. I hold a Ph.D. in chemistry and rarely need anything beyond basic arithmetic in my job. The need for algebra is highly over-rated.

Robert said...

Coach -- I have taught the math of personal finance many times, and I can assure that algebra is an essential tool for doing many everyday tasks in finance. For example:
* Finding the present value of an investment
* Calculating how much of a down payment you would need to make on a loan in order to attain a given monthly payment
* Calculating the interest rate needed on a loan/mortgage to stay below a certain monthly payment given the down payment

Also, the math skills that Darren is talking about -- the stuff that comes before algebra that are really needed to do algebra -- are precisely those skills needed to to simple stuff like calculate interest rates: working with exponents, understanding geometric versus linear growth, performing order-of-operations calculations correctly with parentheses, etc.

Finally, I should hope that we are aiming a little higher in our school systems than teaching students how to survive. If we restrict our math requirements to just what you are going to need to balance a checkbook, I shudder to think how many potential world-changing scientists, engineers, doctors, or math teachers we will lose simply because they are never exposed to anything more than "what they need". (As if we can predict the future so handily...)

Darren said...

I recommend John Allen Paulos' 1988 prophetic best seller Innumeracy: Mathematical Illiteracy and its Consequences.

I also recommend Sherman Stein's books, specifically How The Other Half Thinks--in which he writes: "As I wrote, I kept in mind two types of readers: those who enjoyed mathematics until they were turned off by an unpleasant episode, usually around fifth grade; and mathematics aficionados, who will find much that is new throughout the book." The jacket sates "This charming book speaks to both those who employ the intuitive, creative right half of the brain, and to those who rely more on the analytical, numerical left half. How The Other Half Thinks is for the novice and the skilled, the poet and the scientist...." I concur.

Anonymous said...

Whether someone is proficient at mathematics or or not, should not preclude them from being a teacher, it should only disallow those without adaquate skills from teaching math. Hence the many elementry ed majors who fail entry level math are doing students a disservice by trying to teach math. As far as the useless nature of understanding and needing algebra to pass on from high school. I could make similar arguments for spelling and punctuation, reading and grammar, as multimedia outlets are capable of providing all my needed information without me knowing how to read. I could also argue history and government being pointless to learn, seeing as how history continues to repeat itself and the US Constitution was basiclly thrown out almost a century ago.
Oh BOY!!!
Look what I've done, I've gone and worked myself up over nothing I can fix.
Could someone remind me why I want to enter this broken educational system?

Coach Brown said...

So not passing algebra makes a person mathmatically illiterate?

I think that is my main arguement.

Darren said...

Paulos' point about mathematical illiteracy is practical--people who don't know math can't "think critically" when presented with information from news reports, politicians, etc.

A great example was the several billion dollars that Californians approved for stem cell research. Do people have any mathematical facility at all? Do they know how many people are in California, how much $3B or $6B (can't remember which, I think it was $6B)is, and how much that works out to per person?

Can a person who doesn't understand statistics make an informed decision about global warming?

In his best example, what happens if you're told you test positive for an STD--and you don't even realize that there's a greater probability of getting a false positive than a true negative?

I recommend Innumeracy.

And CowboyLogic? Great comment!

Bob said...

Come on, guys. It's an 8th grade class. If they're not passing 8th grade math then does that mean they don't take any math for four years before they graduate or they take 8th-grade algebra four years in a row??

We can debate whether one needs algebra or not (count me in on the side that thinks high school grads need to take math at least through 8th grade plug-a-number-in-the-formula-algebra) but these graduation requirements ain't new. We had the same rule for graduation when I graduated HS in 1973. And that was in Alabama. Somehow I don't recall anyone in my class being "denied" a diploma.

Polski3 said...

From what I can see, from the junior high teacher level, is that kids are not being held accountable for learning basic math skills in elem. school; addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, decimals, fractions, etc. They are passed on up to the next grade level regardless of being able to add 2 + 2. Or KNOW that 13 x 3 = 39
or that .25 + 1.65 + .10 = 2.00

These, IIRC, are the building blocks of algebra. They simply are not prepared because NO ONE HELD THEM ACCOUNTABLE.

And THAT is sad.

Lillian said...

Back in the day, I attended a tech high school in Chicago, which was considered one of the best public schools in the city...still is.
I was required to take Algebra, Geometry, Advanced Algebra, Trig, and Calculus. I also took Biology, Chemistry, and Physics...or should I say that they took me.
I did quite well in all math subjects, even though I didn't go on to major in Math in college (never even considered it).
The main reason I feel I did well in all of the math requirements, especially Algebra, was simply due to the fact that I had a GREAT TEACHER, who was able to make a South Side Colored Girl living in Segregated Chicago in the mid-60's, not only understand and pass the courses with A's and B's - but to actually enjoy it!
The Bottom Line?
Great Teachers Get Their Students Learning Anything and Everything!!


Anonymous said...

Please Lillian, what planet are you on?

Most of these kids don't make any effort at all to help themselves. They already think that the reason they don't learn is that someone else hasn't done enough for them. They already think that the world owes them a living. They go to school and are angry that the teacher doesn't give them an As for just sitting around. They obnoxiously refuse any help from the adults put there to help them and they think that the rights of others who want to learn can be stomped on.

Algebra is not just algebra. It is a measure of the student's ability to think- a type of IQ test. If you can think abstractly about algebra you can think abstractly about other things too. It means that you can focus without distraction on an idea. It means you have a rudimentary work ethic. It means that you have paid attention, done some homework, and learned something that you couldn't get from TV or your IPod.

The algebra requirement weeds out the lame and the lazy. If the student can't pass it they shouldn't get a high school diploma.

As to the teachers, the teachers need to flunk the duds and get them out of the way so that those that want to learn can do it without being impeded by screwups. High school teachers need to have the authority to just toss a kid out if they are wasting everyone's time. With no pencil, and no book, they are idling their time away, amusing themselves to death, and bothering those who want to learn.

So, toss out the flunking bunch at 16 and keep the remainder and teach them something. The world doesn't owe anyone a living and life is tough. If they are going to fail at 18, then let them fail at 16 and let them get on with the school of hard knocks.

No sympathy and out of patience, I am a parent of a high school student who is trying and brings her book, her pencil and her homework everyday. Please help her by getting rid of the messed up, lazy kids with an attitude and actually focusing on the kids who want to learn. Fuck the no child left behind policy, I say leave them behind and don't look back.

I raised my kid to respect adults, accept responsibility for her mistakes, and to respect the adults in charge. She has been in the same school as these poor downtrodden losers who complain endlessly and do nothing to help themselves. Students like my daughter are the ones that schools should focus on not the losers.


lori said...

A nod to Coach Brown. I actually managed to get through Algebra II with a C, but have no idea how this happened. I recall abslutely nothing -- and I mean nothing (not even whether my teachers were male or female) from my high school and college (one) math classes. Despite this dismal admission, critical thinking and logical reasoning are key component of the subjects I teach -- government, world politics, history. My classes studied each of the recent CA ballot initiatives, incl. their potential fiscal impacts to the state and its 35 million people. We did this without using Algebra. I teach how to read polls with a skeptical eye (examining how questions are phrased, the ways in which polls are conducted and the effect that has on responses, how questions are asked, who is asked, validity vs. reliability, how and results are reported, and perhaps the most important question...who commissioned and paid for the poll)...critical thinking? Certainly. Algebra? No. And I never took a statistics class. Would I do a better job having one under my belt? Perhaps.

But after that long-winded spiel, I wanted to give a nod to Darren. When student teaching middle school I was asked to apply for a permanent position teaching (mostly) history. The rub: I also would be required to take one class of math(sixth graders). I turned it down in that classroom would have been a clear case of educational malpractice! Of course, elementary school teachers should be comfortable and fluent with basic math and how to teach these concepts to younger children.

The question I have with the emphasis on Algebra (and in my district soon to be Geometry too) for all is to what end? We pass these sweeping initiatives with general rumblings about global competitiveness and powerful teaching and high expectations...but c'mon? Beyond the cheap politics, do we have the will to reach the really reluctant learners? It's so easy to say, "No excuses," but in my school we've had permanent math positions open for a year or longer because we don't have enough truly qualified folks willing to take the jobs.

The Triumvirate said...

I will admit that I am not at all a "math person", but that doesn't mean that I should be held to less rigorous standard than others. Would it be fair for people to hand out diplomas to people who get a D or F in high school English just because they don't really like reading? I'm a current college freshman, and I am constantly appalled by the complete lack of basic educational standards. I honestly cannot fathom how some of these people graduated from high school and got into college, but the answer is, low standards.

Coach Brown said...

The ability to read is by far more necessary than the ability to use Algebra. The two a mutally exclusive.

Darren said...

Coach Brown, the ability to read and facility with algebra are mutually exclusive??? How is it I can do both?

rightwingprof said...

"Coach -- I have taught the math of personal finance many times, and I can assure that algebra is an essential tool for doing many everyday tasks in finance. For example:
* Finding the present value of an investment
* Calculating how much of a down payment you would need to make on a loan in order to attain a given monthly payment
* Calculating the interest rate needed on a loan/mortgage to stay below a certain monthly payment given the down payment"

Indeed. What's the most popular major in universities? Business. And many students find out how math-intensive it is. As to calculating interest rates, NPVs, etc., I stated on my blog that students seem to believe Excel is magic and will do everything for them, and do not realize they have to set up the worksheets, they have to decide how they will solve the problem, and they will have to decide what formulas and functions to use in order to solve it.

That's math literacy. And it does extend to the real world -- very much so.

After all, teaching students how to use the PMT, IPMT and PPMT functions isn't worth much when they think every penny of that credit card payment goes to pay off the principle (or don't even realize what it means to pay interest). Nor does showing them how to enter simple formuals help when they don't know that they have to multiply the sales tax rate by the price to get the total sale.

Garble said...

Depending on what you want to call algebra carpenters need algebra, so do plumbers. So does anyone that needs to figure out how much material to order for a construction project. So does anyone trying to buy enough paint to paint a room but not waste money. Any real understanding of physics requires algebra. It's fundamental. Coach, you teach political science. How relevant is that to day to day life. Assume that all I want to do is go to work, live comfortably on a retail sales income (15$/hour) and have no involvement with government. Do I need to know who the president is? Or be able to read beyond the 6th grade level?

Worrieddad said...

I have a son who took Algebra in jr high (passed) and is now taking Geometry as a freshman in high school. To be honest he struggled in Algebra and is struggling harder to get a C in geometry...nightly tutoring etc. His chances of passing Algebra 2 would seem close to nil. How does a kid in his situation fulfill the two years of high school math requirement here in California? I understand that you are not a guidance counselor but was hoping for some insights. Many thanks

Darren said...

He should retake Algebra 1 in high school, followed by Algebra 2.