Article on San Francisco USD’s decision to prohibit 8th graders from taking Algebra 1. Jim Ryan of the SFUSD, defends the policy:

“Still, Ryan bristles at the suggestion that the eighth graders of San Francisco are no longer learning algebra. Under the Common Core State Standard, he explains, there is a much stronger emphasis on developing a more intuitive understanding of math from an early age. “There is [now] a ton of what you would consider algebra in grade school and all the way through middle school,” he says. “So the question about Algebra I in middle school really just doesn’t fit the current paradigm because the standards are so different than what has historically been taught.”

“As Ryan points out, the CCSS Math 8 course that eighth graders are now expected to take includes 60% of the material from the old Algebra I course. This includes linear equations, roots, exponents, and an introduction to functions. The new course also offers students a taste of geometry and statistics—hardly your typical middle school fare. According to Ryan, this helps students to understand the “why” and “what for” of pre-algebraic math.

“Likewise, the course called “Algebra I” that students will now take in their first year of high school introduces a number of the concepts we all associate with introductory algebra (quadratic equations, say), but also delves deeper into modeling with functions and quantitative analysis. Call it what you want, in other words, but this is not your grandmother’s Algebra I. ”

My grandmother didn’t take Algebra 1, but I took it in the 60’s and I suppose it’s people like me that Ryan is referring to. I have a bunch of textbooks from that era. I’ll be teaching 8th grade algebra at a school in California, in which the school district doesn’t sit on the high horse that SFUSD likes to occupy. In looking through the Common Core-aligned algebra book I’m forced to teach from, I’m aghast at the dearth of good solid word problems, the short shrift given to exponentials, to rational expressions, not to mention the omission of solving quadratic equations by factoring–I guess the quadratic formula saves a lot of time and there’s no value in teaching that approach. There is a chapter on statistics (as if that’s needed in an algebra class), and a superficial look at exponential functions, which I suppose allows people like Ryan to say “Look how deep this course is. Not your grandmother’s algebra 1”.

Furthermore, the algebra Ryan feels is taught in regular 8th grade math, isn’t that much different than what used to be offered in 7th grade pre-algebra classes. The exception is that they teach simultaneous linear equations–and spend an inordinate amount of time on that, as well as developing a “deep understanding” of slope. I observed an 8th grade class going through this supposed “deep understanding”–spending five weeks on slope and functions which could have been taught fairly well in 2 weeks.

I will be supplementing the algebra book heavily and giving lots of word problems, as well as problems with exponentials, powers, and rational expressions. That aside, the policy that 8th graders shouldn’t be taking algebra 1 is an ill-thought one. The school district in which I reside (but do not teach in, and refuse to do so because of a constructivist-oriented superintendent and a very student-centered approach to education in general) has implemented a similar policy. Algebra 1 for those middle schoolers who are “truly gifted”–a term left undefined, but tracked by a very poor readiness exam put together by Silicon Valley Math Initiative SVMI). SVMI is made up of constructivist group-thinkers who not only have no clue what works, bit also do not realize that the “grandmothers” who took algebra 1 learned a hell of a lot more than today’s youth.