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A new formula for algebra

EDITORIALS

October 31, 2008

Everybody commits a rash, thoughtless act now and again. But how often do we get a chance to take it back? The state Board of Education was just handed that opportunity and should not squander it. The board should consider a judge's temporary restraining order as a gift and rescind its decision to require that all eighth-graders take algebra within three years.

It was a foolish and punitive decision when it was made in July, pushed aggressively by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, and it makes less sense now, after the state announced a deficit so large, school budgets might be cut to the point at which districts would have to close some schools altogether. With about half of students now taking algebra in eighth grade -- and less than half of those testing as proficient -- a 100% mandate was always going to be a hugely expensive undertaking, destined for failure under a three-year deadline. The state lacks the right textbooks. It doesn't have the right curriculum fully in place. It's short on top-notch math teachers, as well as coaches to help with math instruction in elementary schools, where children's weaknesses in math originate. What it does have is an overabundance of students who are not on track to take algebra by eighth grade and who are being set up for failure.

What the board might consider is requiring that, within three years, no child will be promoted from elementary school who lacks fluency in multiplication tables and long division. That fundamental weakness has been linked repeatedly to failure in algebra later on. Of course, such a mandate isn't sexy. It doesn't allow the governor to boast, as he is fond of doing, that his state now has the highest algebra standard in the country. It's just good, sound education that would ultimately prepare students to succeed in higher mathematics.

A study by the Brookings Institution found no evidence that pushing algebra earlier in the curriculum results in stronger achievement. In fact, some places with the highest percentage of eighth-graders in algebra -- including California and Washington, D.C. -- have among the lowest math scores for that grade on national tests, and vice versa.

A Superior Court judge this week ordered the algebra mandate postponed at least until a December hearing. The Board of Education should grab the chance to learn from its mistake, repeal the eighth-grade rule and begin the more difficult, step-by-step process of building a strong math curriculum -- one that prepares all students to succeed in algebra and go on to a full course of college-prep math.

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