New law dumbs down Calif. math performance

Oct. 22, 2012

By Bill Evers and Ze’ev Wurman

Gov. Jerry Brown recently sent California several decades back into the 20th century by signing Senate Bill 1200, by state Sen. Loni Hancock, D-Oakland. This law now mandates a shocking rollback of how much math we expect children in California’s public schools to learn and  — furthermore — this law constitutes a setback for good government.

Back in the late 1990s, faced with evidence that the state ranked near the bottom of the nation and industrialized countries in math achievement, California policymakers set the goal of teaching Algebra 1 by grade eight to all students who were ready for it — in line with most high-achieving countries.

From the beginning, policymakers knew it was an ambitious goal. Educators stepped up to the challenge. Policymakers at the state level, working together with teachers and principals in local school districts, put a system in place to enhance learning of key building blocks of mathematics in the elementary grades, strengthened teachers’ math competency, increased training on math teaching techniques, and provided textbooks aligned to the more challenging standards.

And students stepped up, too. The results are a rarely-told story of stunning success in public education. In 1998, only 17 percent, just 70,000 of our students, took Algebra by grade eight. But this year, 68 percent, or more than 324,000 did.

This translates to almost quarter of a million more students taking Algebra by grade eight. Not only had we successfully quadrupled the fraction of Algebra-taking by grade eight — which is a major accomplishment for those students and their teachers — but an ever larger percentage of students have over time scored “proficient” and above.

The success of minorities and students in poverty increasing their Algebra 1 proficiency was the most significant achievement. In 2003, fewer than 1,700 African-Americans successfully took Algebra by grade 8. By 2012, more than 6,900 did; that was more than a four-fold increase

In 2003, slightly more than 10,000 Latino students successfully took Algebra by grade 8. By 2011, more than 63,000 did; that was more than six-fold increase. In fact, more Latino students scored proficient and advanced on Algebra in 2012 than the total number of Latino students who took Algebra in 2003.

Dooming the children

SB 1200 will doom all children, whether in poverty or affluent, to a one-size-fits-all, lowered-expectations elementary curriculum that will only prepare them for pre-algebra in middle school. Rather than strengthening preparation for all students in earlier grades for Algebra in grade eight, in line with international benchmarks, we will return to an era when only privileged families can afford the extra tutoring to prepare their children for high expectations and international competition.

Poorly drafted

Furthermore, SB1200 is so poorly drafted that it doesn’t just roll back the expectation of Algebra 1 in grade eight. It does more than that by requiring “one set” of standards “at each grade level,” and precluding typical mathematics course options for students in high school.

California high schools have always offered different math classes to students in the same grade who have different levels of preparation. Accordingly, California historically has adopted course-level math standards for high school — preserving local control at the district and school level to decide when it would be best to offer rigorous courses to each student based on the student’s ability. But SB 1200 would outlaw that practice by mandating only one set of mathematics curriculum- content standards, textbooks and training and teacher materials for all students in each K-12 grade.

Officials of Brown’s administration have offered rhetoric about how they will not have to implement the plain language of the law. But they do not have the statutory authority or capacity to violate the law’s provisions. Efforts to get around the wording of the law will lead to confusion about policy on curriculum, textbooks and testing — and hence invite lawsuits and re-ignite the math wars.

Standards development

Finally, SB 1200 radically changes the balance of power in government over the development of curriculum-content standards. Historically, standards have been drafted by a panel appointed by different branches of California’s state government, with a majority of appointees made by the governor. This bill permanently transfers authority over standards development to the state superintendent of public instruction, currently Tom Torlakson, a former Democratic state legislator.

Such a move is unwise. The state superintendent and bureaucrats at the state Department of Education often are likely to represent the narrow interests of education providers. Whereas the governor (of whatever party) is more likely to represent the larger interests of all the people of California who primarily want to see students succeeding academically — especially students’ parents and employers who hire graduates of public schools.

When California agreed to consider adopting the Common Core national curriculum-content standards, then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, concerned about maintaining California’s rigorous standards, conditioned their adoption “until we have determined that they meet or exceed our own” standards.

In that spirit, the California State Academic Content Standards Commission determined in 2010 that retaining Algebra I in eighth grade was essential. It suggested dual options — both authentic Algebra I and the Common Core’s pre-algebra. The state Board of Education approved the suggestions in August 2010. In signing SB 1200 Governor Brown has just thrown overboard the rigor that three past governors — of both parties — had fought hard to establish and maintain.

Undoing California’s high academic expectations is a disastrous step backward for all children. SB 1200 will leave the children and  future workers of California woefully unprepared for the challenges and demands they will face in today’s ever more fiercely competitive economy at home and in an increasingly global marketplace.

Bill Evers is a research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution and a member of the institution’s Koret Task Force on K-12 Education. He was U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education for Program, Evaluation and Policy Development from 2007 to 2009.

Ze’ev Wurman is an executive at a Silicon Valley semiconductor company and a former senior adviser to the U.S. Department of Education. Both Evers and Wurman served on the California State Academic Content Standards Commission in 2010.  

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