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It doesn't add up

Even if there were money to pay for it, the state's new algebra mandate would still be a bad idea.

August 16, 2008

Now that the State Board of Education is foolishly requiring every eighth-grader to take algebra, starting in three years, all that remains to be figured out is, how on Earth is this going to happen when so few kids are on track to get there?

The solution, according to state Supt. of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell, is to spend $3.1 billion on a "California Algebra I Success Initiative" that would recruit and train math teachers, lengthen the middle-school day, reduce class sizes in math and so forth.

The ideas are good enough. Essentially, though, they're a political ball tossed to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who pushed for the eighth-grade requirement. (O'Connell opposed it.) The governor took on the easy part of school reform, in which he got to call for an unrealistic standard and proclaim that California was the first in the land with such high expectations. Will he now refuse to pay for the math requirement that he said was so necessary? That's a possibility. The algebra funding would add about 5% to the state's total allocation for public education, money that is not readily available even in a good budget year.

The state Department of Education says the proposal's details haven't been figured out, but the algebra initiative outlines specific expenditures -- this much for after-school tutoring, that much for a summer program in grades 4 through 8. The state should be moving away from such so-called categorical programs, in which schools can obtain money only if they agree to spend it in predetermined ways. If the state has extra funding for schools -- and it doesn't right now -- it should let them decide how best to spend the money, and hold them accountable for the results.

The money would definitely help improve math achievement, but even this much can't prepare all or most eighth-graders to take algebra successfully within three years. There are too many years of math skills that must be built up. Schools already are pushing more middle-school students toward algebra because of state incentives, but of the 52% of eighth-graders taking algebra, less than 40% test as proficient, statistics that were dismissed in the rush to set up a bright, shiny math requirement.

Here we have a request for $3.1 billion that the state doesn't have to solve a problem that was artificially created by the governor and the State Board of Education. With quick-fix requirements that aren't fixes at all, and continual new "top priorities" and initiatives, it becomes ever clearer why California schools are in a perpetual state of turmoil.

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