Saturday, August 30, 2008

Governor Schwarzenegger's Algebra Initiative

I just received a PDF file containing state Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell's press release about implementing the governor's Algebra Initiative. I cannot find this press release on the Department of Education web site, but I assume it will be there shortly after the 3-day weekend.

We need more teachers, blah blah blah. The CSUs and UCs need to produce more math teachers, blah blah blah. We need to increase math instructional time, blah blah blah. Smaller class sizes, blah blah blah. Specialized classes for struggling students, blah blah blah. Extend AVID, STEM, and MESA programs, blah blah blah. Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

There's a dollar figure attached to each proposal. Total cost: $3.1 billion.

There's not a single thing new here. Same old ideas.

There's not one suggestion about studying successful programs in other states, both math programs and poor/minority achievement programs, and adapting them to California. We know there's more to this problem than just incompetent teachers and schools, and there's not one suggestion about addressing the family component of education. There's not one suggestion about looking at those countries which successfully teach algebra to 13 and 14-year-olds, and seeing how they accomplish it.

No, we just throw more money at the same old time-worn ideas and hope they'll work this time.

$3.1 billion. That's about $100 for every person in the state, in addition to already spending half of our state budget on education. In fact, this represents about 6% of our entire state education budget, for more of the same old, same old.

Sometimes it's scary having number sense.

7 comments:

Anonymous said...

"There's not one suggestion about looking at those countries which successfully teach algebra to 13 and 14-year-olds, and seeing how they accomplish it."

We mostly *know* how they do it. To pick one example, Singapore does this (as nearly as I can tell Singapore teaches algebra to its 7th graders). Singapore teaches in English and the math texts are available here (one of the more popular curricula for the homeschooling crowd).

We've even had trial runs in the US using Singapore math (e.g. here: http://www.hoover.org/publications/ednext/3853357.html)

*I* would start by carefully reading the 1989 NTCM standards document and asking if *this* might have something to do with the problem (e.g. p71 recommends "Decreased Attention" to "Manipulating Symbols" for algebra in the 4th-8th grade section. Hmmm ... less attention to symbol manipulation in algebra ... interesting idea ...)

Honestly, the problem at this point is:
   *) ideological,
   *) political,
   *) most parents are clueless

This isn't a technical problem.
-Mark Roulo

Darren said...

Singapore's a little more homogenous than we are, and there's a different culture there that values education more than we do here.

It can be done here, but it's going to take more than what was tossed out in that press release.

Anonymous said...

"It can be done here, but it's going to take more than what was tossed out in that press release."

Yes.

But we aren't even trying to go in that direction :-(

-Mark Roulo

allen (in Michigan) said...

But we aren't even trying to go in that direction :-(

And the reason would be?

Darren said...

Because there are too many entrenched interests who benefit from the status quo.

Anonymous said...

"
Mark: But we aren't even trying to go in that direction :-(

Allen: And the reason would be?

Darren: Because there are too many entrenched interests who benefit from the status quo.
"

I think it is more wierder ( :-) ) than that. Do we have an entrenched interest that benefits from the kids not learning how to do long division? The 1989 NTCM document that wants "Decreased Attention" to "Manipulating Symbols" for algebra in the 4th-8th grade section also wants decreased attention to "Addition and subtraction without renaming", "Long division", and "Long division without remainders" in K-4 (p21). They explain later that, "If students have not been successful in 'mastering' basic computational skills in previous years, why should they be successful now, especially if the same methods that failed in the past are merely repeated [NOTE: I'll agree with the same methods part --MJR]? In fact, considering the effect of failure on students' attitudes, we might argue that further efforts towards mastering computational skills are counterproductive." [emphasis added --MJR]

Entrenched interests I understand ... the sort of positions I find in the NTCM document I do not.

What really sucks, is that this is the sort of position that can eliminate AT A VERY EARLY AGE the possibility for kids to become scientists and engineers. Long division is pretty much a necessary precursor to simplifying algebraic expressions, which is necessary for calculus. No long division seems to imply that algebra is going to be miserable which implies that calculus isn't going to happen [NOTE: Maybe there is a way to use forgiving division to divide polynomials ... but I can't figure it out]. Again, I can see this as an ideological position, but don't see an entrenched interest here.

:-(

I won't be surprised if there are entrenched interests, as Darren suggests, but this makes changing/fixing this even harder ... two battles to fight and win, not just one.

-Mark Roulo

Anonymous said...

It might be possible for American K-12 students to achieve the sorts of math scores that their counterparts in Asia & Europe earn, but it would take enormous change.

Regarding Singapore, I believe their success has more to do with the degree of support that the social fabric gives to education. So far as I understand things, it is much the same elsewhere in Asia-- in Japan, Taiwan, Korea, for example.

The American math reformistas I have known pretty much seek to ape the methods of Asian education systems without understanding the real reasons those systems are successful. Their "research" is like the "science" of Cargo Cults.

Reforms that take place here need to better harness the social fabric of American society if they are to succeed at all.

If someone made me the czar of education in California, here's what I'd do:

1) Immediately implement tuition vouchers for K-12 students. Sucky schools would be forced to improve or wither on the vine.
2) Abolish the "everyone must go to college" approach that has taken over K-12 by spending to revive vocational education in high school.
3) Students would be tracked starting at some point. One track would be college-prep, another would be vocational/technical. I would also create some kind of expulsion-for-cause program that would encourage proper behavior by kicking out troublemakers (and perhaps allowing them to return if they pay their own tuition).
4) I would move to abolish tenure by offering teachers fat raises to accept contracts that would be renewed every five years or so according to performance that would be gauged by some kind of measurable standards.
5) I would re-make teacher pay schemes so they actually look like something shaped by marketplace forces. But getting a teaching job would require demonstration of subject mastery, via examination(s).