The Solution to Inequity, Dept.

From Education Week, there’s this:

“A study released this week in the journal Educational Researcher found teachers cover significantly less algebra material in those classes at predominately black schools than their peers in schools that are mostly white or have no racial majority.”

The solution to this in some school districts, such as San Francisco, is to eliminate algebra in 8th grade entirely. That way no one benefits, and both black and white students are disadvantaged equally.

In other districts such as San Luis Coastal in California, students must score high enough on a rather poorly constructed test. The test is developed by Silicon Valley Math Initiative (SVMI) and the questions are typical of those thought to require “deep understanding”, but which are largely formative, one-off type problems which are treated as summative.

I wrote about how you no longer have to be economically disadvantaged or a minority to be given the short end of the stick. The comments on this story have long since disappeared but they included one from an African American teacher who claimed I was (paraphrasing here) a pandering white savior racist.

There’s no shortage of names to be called in this era of equity for all.


9 thoughts on “The Solution to Inequity, Dept.

  1. What if they’re covering less algebra material because the students have weaker foundations in basic skills? It would be better to spend 8th grade getting those foundations down, do algebra in 9th grade, and embark on a path that still has them calculus-ready with solid fundamentals by freshman year of college.


    • Agreed, but eliminating algebra entirely for all 8th grade students as is the case in SFUSD leaves students out who would otherwise qualify. And in districts like San Luis, a poorly constructed test also eliminates some amount of students who would otherwise qualify for an algebra class. In the case of black students getting a watered down algebra course, is it clear that those students have weaker foundations in basic skills?


      • First, I absolutely agree that kids who are ready should start algebra in 8th grade, and kids who aren’t yet ready should spend 8th grade getting ready.

        As to black students and preparation, I wouldn’t assume that all black students have weaker foundations, but black students do worse (on average) on a wide range of educational measures all throughout their k-12 education. I assume that this manifests as under-preparation for many (not all) black students. It would be strange if repeated achievement gaps had consequences everywhere EXCEPT in readiness for algebra among 8th graders.

        The solution, of course, is tracking. Black kids who are actually ready for algebra should absolutely take algebra in 8th grade. As should white kids, Hispanic kids, Asian kids, Native American kids, Middle Eastern kids, etc. Black kids who aren’t yet ready should spend 8th grade getting ready, just like anyone else.


      • “The solution, of course, is tracking.”

        Aaarrrgh! Tracking doesn’t just magically start in 8th grade. The tracking split is normally done at the end of 6th grade to sort kids into at least two levels for 7th grade math. The algebra in 8th grade track gets a proper (and traditionally taught) course in Pre-Algebra and the others get various sorts of lower and slower alternatives.

        This tracking split worked ages ago fairly equally for all. I got to calculus in high school with absolutely no help from my parents. That can’t happen now. With full inclusion, social promotion, and the lower slope expectations of CC, no child is left behind, but no child is brought ahead. I had to help my son at home to ensure that he was ready for the 7th grade split made by the school. All of my son’s STEM-ready friends had to have help at home or with tutors. Once my son got to our traditional AP Calculus sequence high school, I had to provide no help at all.

        CC is driving and hiding all tracking into the home and it starts in Kindergarten. Schools talk about “differentiated instruction,” but that never happens because there are too many levels. Then they talk about differentiated learning, but that ends up as parent differentiated tracking and acceleration at home. I’ve been through many specific examples of this – teacher supported unequal education. Generally, however, they prefer that parents just do it themselves so they don’t have to deal with the implications. That’s what we did because our son’s teachers would just put a check mark on his work.

        CC now defines one low slope from Kindergarten math to the end of high school where the goal is no remediation for a class in College Algebra. What happens to kids in families who can’t provide the needed academic tracking at home or with tutors? People fall back on racial interpretations. I call it statistical racism where people don’t want to look for other reasons. Track starting in 8th grade. Isn’t that equality? No.

        Full Inclusion in K-6 creates age-tracked classes with a wide range of abilities and willingness, and schools have this fairy dust hope that students will learn naturally or “when they’re ready.” Many of us parents know better, so our kids are now tracked at home starting in Kindergarten. It’s discouraging to see so many side with teachers and their ED-school philosophies over the needs of those students they claim to want to help the most. The goal of education is not to statistically reduce poverty. The goal is to provide equal individual educational opportunity. K-6 schools get this backwards and make that goal more difficult.

        This isn’t a Democratic or Republican conflict or issue. It’s an issue of reality versus belief. Right now, K-6 schools under CC are ignoring the reality of the tracking we parents have to provide at home starting in Kindergarten. Parents and students – key stakeholders – have no choice. There’s a lot of spin going on to explain away reality.


      • SteveH,

        I didn’t mean to imply that tracking should only start in 8th grade. I just meant that students should be in the class that they’re demonstrated to be ready for, not the class determined by their age. I’m not in the k-12 system so I’m not familiar with the lingo.

        But this discussion of 8th grade algebra is relevant to my professional concerns, because I’m a college professor who mostly works with undergraduates in a decidedly non-elite institution. And I see fundamental misunderstandings of algebra even among students who passed calculus. We’re subject to similar “social promotion” concerns. We don’t call it that, but there’s an implicit understanding that we simply can’t fail more than a certain percentage of the students in STEM classes, no matter how weak their understanding. If they arrive in calculus without really getting algebra? Well, teach them what you can and pass a large percentage of them. I mean, they passed a “college” algebra class so they are, by definition, sufficiently competent or proficient or whatever the current term is. If they arrive in physics without really getting calculus? Well, teach them what you can, and pass a large percentage of them. If they arrive in engineering without really getting physics? Well, teach them what you can and pass a large percentage of them.

        I see a disturbing number of students who took calculus in high school (meaning that they were enrolled in a course with “calculus” in the title) and passed the class (meaning they got enough points on homework assignments and curved tests written and graded by a teacher who needs to keep the principal happy) yet place into not even “college” algebra but remedial math. That’s quite a feat. In my university system, there are numerous ways to get out of remedial math. There are multiple state tests taken in high school which can exempt one from remedial math. A good SAT score can exempt you from remedial math. A 3 on the AP Calculus test would get you out of remedial math. Crossing a certain threshold on the placement test taken when you enter would get you out of remedial math. In other words, you need to do poorly on 5-6 separate tests, taken over a span of a year and a half, in order to get into remedial math. This isn’t about taking one test with too little sleep, or taking one test the day after a family tragedy when your mind is elsewhere.

        In other words, on a daily basis I am confronted with evidence of problems that started in middle school or even earlier. Yet the people above me believe that there’s some magical “best practice” that will take students who have been behind in math for years and, within the confines of 120 credit hours taught on the basis of 1 weekly contact hour per credit hour, magically get them to a level of proficiency comparable to peers at more selective institutions. There are profound math deficits to be filled, yet we’re supposed to do this in the same time frame in which better-prepared peers would get bachelor’s degrees.

        And, if that isn’t crazy enough, some colleagues declare that, in the name of equity, our middling students should then be sent to PhD programs. After all, they got a piece of paper with the words “Bachelor of Science” stamped on it, they got that paper from an accredited university, and it would be unfair to deem their preparation insufficient. Their GRE Quantitative Reasoning scores tell us that they’re still weak on high school math, but my colleagues declare that the GRE means nothing. Just like every other test showing poor performance means nothing. PhD programs that care about “equity” should take our students, and we should ignore deficits that have been present and growing since middle school or earlier.

        It’s insanity.


      • “…but there’s an implicit understanding that we simply can’t fail more than a certain percentage of the students in STEM classes, no matter how weak their understanding.”

        In the 1980s, I taught math (including “College Algebra”) and CS at a college where it was difficult to fail anyone.

        I could never teach a course at the same level I had at Michigan. Most would flunk. That’s part of this K-16+ problem, but real life job expectation success/failure is their final reward – hopefully not as a surprise to the student by then. However, I’ve met a number of students and parents who felt like they were hit in the head with a ton of bricks when they reached the honors/general class split in high school after years of “exceeding expectations” CC reports. This is really a choice and reality feedback issue.

        For those who “pass” calculus in high school but end up in remedaial math, that’s a problem of school and/or teacher incompetence. That may happen more than I know in high schools, but my experience is that high schools that offer AP/IB classes with external testing and national calibration, that’s less likely. If students in an AP Calculus class pass the course, but get a 2 or 1 on the AP test, they have some external feedback. If large numbers of students get good grades at a high school, but fail in college, there is usually a feedback loop there somewhere.

        “In other words, on a daily basis I am confronted with evidence of problems that started in middle school or even earlier.”

        Many of us STEM parents are saying that it starts in Kindergarten with full inclusion. It’s a systemic and philosophical problem. It went away in 7th grade for my son with their use of a proper Glencoe Pre-Algebra textbook followed by Algebra I. This led to a proper sequence of AP Calc math classes in high school. Many middle schools side with the K-6 school world and don’t even offer the chance for an Algebra I class. Middle schools are often battle grounds between the fuzzy world of K-6 and the reality-driven world of high school. The problem is NOT equal across all of the grades. It’s a systemic problem in K-6 AND students and parents have no choice. Schools also hide reality by using fuzzy and wordy rubric report cards.

        “Yet the people above me believe that there’s some magical “best practice” that will take students who have been behind in math for years and, within the confines of 120 credit hours taught on the basis of 1 weekly contact hour per credit hour, magically get them to a level of proficiency comparable to peers at more selective institutions.”

        They’re fools and part of the ED-School Thought World. There is little that you can do to fix it. I had several techniques that helped students in math, but most students didn’t understand the required homework work ethic that was needed. I had to teach them the imortance of homework. I gave them time in class to start and to ask questions. I gave weekly quizzes.

        This failure to value the importance of P-sets starts in Kindergarten. I’ve tutored high school math students who “get it” when I go over homework problems one-on-one, and I tell them that they HAVE to do the same problems again by themselves. They don’t do it. Conceptual understanding is NOT the understanding you get when you do full problem sets by yourself. That’s the fundamental failure of ED-School Thought. They want something for nothing. STEM practitioners understand what this means, but not those in the skill and fact-less education world.

        “…in the name of equity, our middling students should then be sent to PhD programs.”

        This is a continuation of a meme that wants all kids to go to college. The only way to do that is to dumb down college. STEM employers know what and which colleges to look, but many jobs that didn’t need a college degree before now do so. The question is whether the students fully understand what’s going on or are they misled by educators who think that success in a career is all about getting that piece of paper. Educators are making students miserable by telling them they have to go to college and go in debt, and employers are using the paper as a simple sorting tool for skills that should be taught on-the-job.

        Those of us in the Math Wars for decades have been fighting the overall dumbing down of math at all levels and their incredible claim that somehow less work with “conceptual” understanding trumps the understanding that comes from individually doing P-sets. This problem exists at all grade levels, but it starts in Kindergarten and has now been institutionalized by the Common Core. We parents now have to fill in at home and many of us do. Educators don’t (want to) see that happening beause it would question their assumptions. They are trying to float all boats on a sea of very low expecations, but nobody learns to fly. They point to our flying kids without asking us parents what “rote” flight training skills and “mere” facts we had to ensure at home. The academic gap goes on.

        This is not a liberal vs conservative battle. It’s a battle between reality and dreams.


    • The problem of low slope NON-STEM Common Core expectations starts in Kindergarten. This predates CC, but now it’s institutionalized. CC guarantees that NO students will be ready for a proper algebra I class in 8th grade. However, many of us STEM parents give our children what they need in terms of individual problem sets, mastery , and understanding. Ask us parents of the best math students who do get to calculus in high school and have the possibility for STEM careers. Ask us. It’s not difficult. The academic gap is still there and growing. We won’t let our kids fail.

      What’s going on now in K-8 regarding slower CC Math does NOT trade speed for better understanding. There is no proof of that and there is no proof that this process magically turns students into solid pre-calc students as seniors – absolutely no proof. If you aren’t properly prepared to get to an algebra I class in 8th grade, the likelihood of a STEM career or even getting a good grade in Pre-Calc as a senior are slim without outside help that fixes all of the bad math teaching in K-8.

      The College Board’s attempt at a proper Pre-AP algebra in 9th grade (that finally focuses on individual mastery), shows they know that K-8 is not ONLY slow, but does not enforce proper mastery of problem sets and skills. Ninth grade is too late to fix that low expectation mentality. AP is not a college course, so calling it Pre-AP is a scam – and they know it.

      This is the racism of low expectations. Students are NOT poverty statistics to improve, they are individuals. Equal education is not equality of outcome. It’s equality of opportunity. It’s no success if little Suzie is the first in her family to get to the community college when she could have gotten to MIT.

      When we STEM parents tell you that there’s something wrong, don’t just ignore us because it doesn’t fit your assumptions. Perhaps you can’t deal with the fact that you’re fundamentally and systemically wrong. High school IB/AP math tracks are rigorous and traditionally taught. Why is it that K-8 has to be different, but they claim better success with understanding.” It’s been 20 years I’ve studied and lived this with my son. I still haven’t gotten an answer. They couldn’t use those techniques in high school because reality would smash them down.


  2. According to all the older Black conservatives that I follow, including Thomas Sowell, Black students were more literate and better off before the Civil Rights Act was passed. Sowell says that things were improving for all people of all economic levels until the Progressives came along.


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