Spinmeister, Dept.

San Francisco’s Unified School District decided to eliminate access to algebra for 8th graders even if a student is qualified to take such a course.  The latest article to justify the action is one written by Jo Boaler (whose self-styled approach to math education in my opinion and the opinion of many others in education who I respect has been ineffective and damaging) and Alan Schoenfeld, a math professor from UC Berkeley whose stance is consistent with math reformers. I.e., “understanding” takes precedence over procedure, among other things.

The article states:

“The Common Core State Standards raised the level and rigor of eighth-grade mathematics to include Algebra 1 content as well as geometry and statistical topics previously taught in high school.”

This is not true. A high school level course includes rational expressions (i.e., algebraic fractions), polynomial division, factoring, quadratic equations, and direct and inverse variation. The 8th grade standards do not include these. I teach an 8th grade math class as well as high school algebra for 8th graders. The latter is far more inclusive. Elimination of access to algebra in 8th grade is certainly not strengthening math ability for those students who are qualified to take such a course.

The article also states:

They  (i.e., San Francisco USD) found a unique balance that is now seen as a national model. They decided to challenge students earlier with depth and rigor in middle school. All students in the district take Common Core Math 6, 7 and 8, a robust foundation that allows them to be more successful in advanced math courses in high school.  The key is conceptually rich courses that benefit everybody, including those who go on to STEM majors in college. In-depth instruction helps all students and provides a more solid base for later math courses. All students get a solid foundation, and acceleration is offered in the 11th and 12th grades.

Translation:  For those students who wish to take calculus in 12th grade, they can double up math courses in 11th grade, so they can take Algebra 2 and Precalculus.  As far as what they mean by “conceptually rich courses that benefit everybody”, it’s anybody’s guess. I work with the textbooks that adhere to the CC standards for 6th, 7th and 8th grades.  I supplement freely with a pre-algebra book by Dolciani written in the 70’s and other materials.  The emphasis on ratio and proportion in 7th and 8th grades is rather drawn out and can be done more concisely, rather than harping on what a direct variation and proportional relationship is. Traditional Algebra 1 courses present direct variation in a much more understandable way, rather than the “beating around the bush” technique that defines such relationships as straight line functions that go through the origin, and whose slope equals the “constant of variation/proportionality”.

So much time is spent on trying to make the “connection” between slope, unit rate, rate of change and constant of variation, that students think they are all different things and are largely confused.  While Boaler and Schoenfeld may say that the confusion arises because teachers don’t know how to teach it, I assure you I know how to teach it. I use an algebraic approach in an algebra class, when students have the algebraic tools with which to grasp the concept more easily.

But the real goal of San Francisco’s elimination of algebra in 8th grade is to close the achievement gap as evidenced by the last paragraph in the article:

Groups that traditionally underachieve — for example, students of color, female students, students of low socioeconomic status, bilingual students and students with special needs — have all experienced increases in achievement. We congratulate the district for its wisdom in building course sequences that serve all students increasingly well.

For those students whose parents can afford it, they take algebra elsewhere in 8th grade and circumvent the system.  Those whose parents cannot afford outside help are stuck with what Boaler and Schoenfeld, and the SFUSD think is equity for all.


11 thoughts on “Spinmeister, Dept.

  1. “San Francisco’s Unified School District decided to eliminate access to algebra for 8th graders even if a student is qualified to take such a course. “


  2. That is stunning. It is educational incompetence, or perhaps worse.

    “All students get a solid foundation, and acceleration is offered in the 11th and 12th grades.”

    They have absolutely no proof that this works. It’s just like the College Board’s Pre-AP algebra in 9th grade that magically is supposed to make students able to double up in their sophomore and junior years. Their video talks about “social justice.” It’s incredible. They do not have a shred of evidence that anyone is better prepared for a STEM college degree.

    All I can say is that this might be the blatant mistake that is the downfall of Jo Boaler, etal.

    It will fail and be blatantly obvious. It will be clear that all of the kids who pass calculus as seniors will have gotten help at home or with tutors or outside courses.

    “Eliminate access?”

    Astounding. Why not eliminate the leveled groups in K-6 they use for differentiated instruction? It all doesn’t make any sense to the most casual observer. CCSS has a slope that leads to no remediation in college algebra – they say this! – but Jo Boaler, etal. claim that it’s normal to magically change that slope in high school to get to calculus, a level difficult even for those who get algebra in 8th grade.

    Is this what they all did with their kids. Did they not help them at home? This must be the age where everyone comes out of the closet (far left and right) to show us exactly what they believe. Worse, they feel that democracy is tyranny of the majority to “eliminate access.”


  3. This is a copy of my comment To the SF Chronicle article. There was one other, equally as supportive of the concept.

    This article is ridiculous. Pretending that avoidance of coherent mathematics development is somehow emphasizing “rigor” completely misrepresents mathematics and its essential rigor. So does equating Finland’s math performance – that lags behind the US by 8th grade on the most recent TIMSS – with Japan’s outstanding performance on both the meaningful TIMSS as well as the borderline meaningless PISA. Algebra avoidance (under the name of algebra) is a SFUSD disservice to students with math-based career aspirations. Dr. Boaler may not know any better but certainly Dr. Schonfeld does. For shame.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Your comment has not shown up yet, at least not in my feed. But I appreciate you writing it. I was going to comment, but I don’t like the idea that one has to use FB or Google to do so, and that SF Chronicle can then view my email addresses.


  4. Pingback: Access to Algebra 1 in 8th Grade; the Never-ending Story | traditional math

  5. This topic is exhausting. My son, the class of 2018, was the last group with access to Algebra in the 8th grade. My daughter who is two years younger was caught up in this. I was one of those people who circumvented the district after arguing to no avail that closing the door for those ready isn’t the answer. I find it baffling that the district refuses to acknowledge that in the underserved population there are kids who are ready and they are the ones who will suffer, while the rest of us with means find ways around this.

    I paid for my daughter to take an on-line accredited high school Algebra 1 class when she was in 8th grade. She was able to take Geometry in 9th grade. She’s now in 11th grade taking pre calculus.

    Some high schools allow their students to double up in 9th or 10th grade, taking Geometry and Algebra 1 concurrently. Or Geometry and Algebra 2 concurrently. However this is site based so it depends on where you go to school if you have access to this method.

    The SFUSD also offers a 6 week Geometry summer class for rising Sophomores which they say is equivalent to a year’s worth of study. It is lottery based and the student must have an A or a B in Algebra 1 to be considered. I find this a very problematic workaround.

    The Algebra 2/ Pre Calculus class, the district’s recommended solution, does not contain all the topics in a full year of pre calculus. it was designed to have enough to be able to take Calculus AB not BC. I have no idea where students learn the missing pre calculus content.

    My son is now an Electrical Engineering Freshman. My daughter is on track to taking Calculus next year. I have argued with the district over this for so many years. I have come to the conclusion there are none so blind as those who refuse to see.

    The Class of 2019 are the first group coming of age with this Algebra for none policy. The district hasn’t released the calculus enrollment numbers as compared to the class of 2018.

    Meanwhile, Boaler and others falsely tie this in to common core. It has nothing to do with common core. San Francisco and Berkeley are the only two districts in the state which implement common core this way.

    At this point I think the district will have to see a few years of data showing the damage this has done to students interested in engineering and physics college majors. I feel like the Dolphins as they leave the planet, in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy books (Douglas Adams). “So long and thanks for all the fish”.


    • They are wrong if they are citing Common Core. In fact, Common Core does allow for a pathway that includes algebra in 8th grade as described in the appendix to the standards, found at http://www.corestandards.org/assets/CCSSI_Mathematics_Appendix_A.pdf . Tell them about that next time you happen to chat with them.

      The appendix states: “A “compacted” version of the Traditional pathway where no content is omitted, in which students would complete the content of 7th grade, 8th grade, and the High School Algebra I course in grades 7 (Compacted 7th Grade) and 8 (8th Grade Algebra I), which will enable them to reach Calculus or other college level courses by their senior year. While the K-7 CCSS effectively prepare students for algebra in 8th grade, some standards from 8th grade have been placed in the Accelerated 7th Grade course to make the 8th Grade Algebra I course more manageable;”


      • I have quoted Appendix A of the common core standards extensively over the years. Both to the Board of Education and to the SFUSD math department. To no avail. And not to mention? California is a common core state, so the rationale that this is common core related makes no sense if we are one of the two districts doing this. I think Oakland Unified’s idea of compressing Algebra 1 and Math 8 for 8th graders ready was a good compromise.


  6. Hey BGarelick!
    Great article. Where did you get all this information about SFschools? I am a researcher at Cornell, looking to find out more about the specific curriculum / policy changes made in SF schools. There is a similar movement happening in middle schools here in upstate NY. I would love to know more 🙂 Thank you for sharing!


    • You might want to check out this post as well: https://traditionalmath.wordpress.com/2018/06/13/skin-deep-understanding-dept/

      Maya, who commented above lives in SF and has contributed a lot of information. Of interest is that the former Supt of SFUSD who instituted the “no algebra for anyone” policy is now the Chancellor of education in NYC and has instituted the “algebra for 8th graders” policy.

      In my school district here (San Luis Coastal USD) in California, they have not banned algebra in 8th grade but have made it extra difficult to qualify for it, by imposing an exam in addition to the effective placement exam that had served that purpose for years. The new exam is full of “formative” type questions that are ill-posed and which serve to screen out a lot of students who are otherwise qualified to take algebra in the 8th grade.

      I teach 8th grade algebra in a Catholic school in an adjoining school district and see no reason for such ridiculous policies.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s