Skin Deep Understanding, Dept.

Ed Week, the self-professed “newspaper of record in education” does it again, with an article on San Francisco’s decision to do away with algebra in the 8th grade.  The article does everything but post banners and host a confetti parade for such decision, but is also careful to provide “nuance” and the semblance of balanced reporting.

The article sets the stage and tone of San Francisco’s decision and what it meant:

That means no “honors” classes. No gifted track. No weighted GPAs until later in high school. No 8th grade Algebra 1. In terms of curriculum, this is about as controversial as it gets. And that’s not just because of its math implications, but because of the parental pushback such a plan is guaranteed to generate. In effect, by de-tracking math classes, San Francisco has done away with one of the key avenues that the well-connected use to give their children an academic advantage.

That last sentence should win an award.  It’s all about equity, and algebra in 8th grade was inequitable because it benefitted the well-connected.  These same “well-connected” families shell out money for tutoring and learning centers to make up for what their children are not being taught in the earlier grades. I guess it’s “shame on them” time, and the Ed Week definition of equity is therefore to lower the tide for all.  And of course no mention of the non-well-connected families who might have benefitted from algebra in 8th grade.  That might be too “nuanced” an argument.

No, much better to rely on the tried and true messages:

Federal data show that white and Asian students disproportionately take Algebra 1—long seen as a critical gateway to advanced math—before high school, while African-American and Latino students are overrepresented among those taking it for the first time in grade 9. Many of them take it as late as their junior or senior year.

And then, of course, to accompany it with a chart showing –goodness–that the repeat rates for algebra 1 for all ethnic groups declined dramatically since the enactment of the ban on algebra1 in 8th grade.

Very impressive.  It brings to mind a question though.  How is algebra 1 taught in high school now?  And I almost hate to phrase it in this un-nuanced way, but is it “watered/dumbed down?”

I bring this up because of how they present the “before” picture, showing two contrasting  (i.e., “nuanced”) views (they even use the word “nuance” here) thus doing a good job of appearing to be balanced:

Research paints a far more nuanced picture than either side in such debates typically acknowledge. For the average student, researchers say, early exposure to a challenging class like algebra probably does pay off.

But in a 2015 study, the University of North Carolina’s Thurston Domina and colleagues tracked how California’s uneven 8th grade algebra-for-all rollout played out across districts. In a surprise finding, they discovered that higher enrollments in early algebra were linked to a decline in students’ scores on a state math test.

“I think the failure of 8th grade algebra was one of just not preparing teachers and school leaders to understand the policy and to implement it well,” said Domina, an associate professor of education policy and sociology. “The whole idea was to have heterogeneous, rigorous classes, and schools didn’t have the capacity to pull that off.”

The article then talks about “instruction vs textbook” and how important the method of instruction is in all this.

As for implementation, San Francisco administrators have shaped day-to-day teaching and curriculum to support the district’s focus on equity. Heavily based on work by Jo Boaler, a Stanford University professor of math education, the curriculum emphasizes having groups of students work through a series of ambitious math tasks.

Traditional math teaching, the thinking goes, tends to reinforce rather than break down inequities.

“If you have a procedural textbook, not only is there nothing to collaborate about, the ‘smart kid’ in the group is always the one who gets the computation right,” said Lizzy Hull Barnes, the mathematics supervisor for the San Francisco district. But when students wrestle over problems together, they can use different methods, compare approaches, and figure out why some work and others don’t, making all of them active participants in the learning, she said.

Jo Boaler’s methods seem to be accepted by Ed Week and other education reporters as beyond reproach. She claims her methods are backed by cognitive science research, making claims such as “making mistakes makes your brain grow”.  Though in all honesty, since she was challenged by scientific-minded people on such statement, there is now a more “nuanced” version of said statement. Nevertheless, “getting the right answer” is now symptomatic of “procedural” instruction and making mistakes is the watchword for ensuring “deep understanding” in this brave new world of math education.

Collaboration is key to 21st Century learning. Without it, you’re simply doing procedural stuff and “answer getting” which is stated with references to dubious research that show that such approaches have failed thousands of students.  “Procedural textbooks” are assumed to provide no pathways to understanding; it’s all rote memorization, unconnected ideas and bags of tricks.  No one in these types of articles ever asks parents of students who make it into STEM fields what these students do to gain mastery of the content. It’s simply assumed that such students are gifted, or highly intelligent, and are destined to understand no matter how the material is presented.

Well, the article does hint at this.  It admits that there are some students who have taken algebra elsewhere–and that this poses a problem in student-centered, inquiry-based, collaborative classrooms.

Most teachers praise the social-justice impetus behind the math plan. But they also say that heterogeneous classes pose unique problems.

Students bring vast achievement differences to class, a situation that’s not helped by ambitious parents who, now, shell out thousands of dollars for students to take non-district algebra classes over the summer in the hopes of getting their children into geometry early.

“We have kids who have seen some of the math before. Their knowledge may not be deep, it may be procedural, but they come in thinking, ‘I know this already.’ You have to authentically challenge them, too,” said Daniel Yamamoto, an algebra teacher and the math-department chairman at Burton High. “And there are other kids who say [in response], ‘I have nothing I can add to this discussion.’ “

And there you have it: Procedural knowledge is never “deep”.  It goes without saying, I guess, which would explain why our reporter didn’t question such statement. It would be nice to get interviews with some of the teachers who disagree with the statements above, rather than just relying on a statement that “most teachers praise” the this and that of banning algebra in 8th grade and about the false dichotomy between procedures and “deep” understanding. Or course, not too many of those teachers want to be interviewed for fear of appearing on record–and possibly losing their jobs.

Interesting that Phil Daro, one of the authors of the Common Core math standards and the person who holds “answer getting” in disdain, is hedging his bets on the algebra in 8th grade question.  On the one hand, the article shows he was instrumental in San Francisco’s decision:

“Tracking is an evil. But fear of tracking is a problem, because you do have to talk about differences in students’ backgrounds,” said Phil Daro, a common-core-math writer who helped San Francisco design the new course sequence.

But then it goes on to say:

“[H]e continues to worry that San Francisco leaders’ decision four years ago not to offer a limited amount of Algebra 1 in 8th grade might someday backfire. “I thought politically it was a mistake,” he said. “It may still turn out to be one.”

Oh, and here’s some balanced reporting, way at the end:

District leaders, for their part, are focused on more immediate concerns. Asked what challenges remain, Barnes points to the progress of black students as an area in which the city needs to double down. Those students have gained in math and science credits, alongside their peers, but those gains aren’t yet showing up on state test scores or in enrollments in AP Calculus.

Ah ha!  Interesting.  So maybe it isn’t working after all! But wait; there’s this:

Her colleague Angela Torres, a math-content specialist, cites the difficulty in ensuring that all teachers feel confident in the new curriculum and teaching methods.

Right. Always leave room in politics and in reporting for blaming it on the teachers who just aren’t doing reform math correctly.


5 thoughts on “Skin Deep Understanding, Dept.

  1. Pingback: Skin Deep Understanding, Dept. — traditional math – Nonpartisan Education Group

  2. I am curious what San Francisco USD thinks “backfiring” looks like?

    To me, 35% of kids in private schools would count as politically backfiring. Though to be fair, San Francisco had an extremely high percentage of kids in private schools before taking away 8th grade Algebra, this policy change just helped that number creep up a bit according to this article.


    • That would be a good comment to leave at the article, since the comments are now attracting defenders of SFUSD’s policy on algebra in 8th grade. Ed Week comments do not allow links however, so if you reference the report you might just leave instructions on how to Google it so people can read it.


  3. Pingback: One track for math: Is equity unfair? — Joanne Jacobs

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