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Friday, October 24, 2008

Algebra Students at Brookings

By the Queen of Free

On Wednesday I attended a presentation at Brookings (which I gather is trying to shorten its name): "The Misplaced Math Student..." where presenters debated the values and disadvantages of placing all students in Algebra in the 8th grade.

The president of the Education Trust, Kati Haycock, was quite persuasive and knowledgeable and said all students should be placed in 8th grade Algebra since all 8th graders, despite poor math performances, gain from the environment and perform better than 8th grade students who are not placed in Algebra.

California and Minnesota have mandated that all 8th graders will take Algebra and are gearing up for their new required classes.

Ms. Haycock contradicted the findings of Tom Loveless, the featured speaker, National Math Panel member, and senior fellow at Brookings who based his report on findings from the NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress).

Mr. Loveless said trends show advanced students have falling grades in Algebra while less advanced students have rising grades, and implied (said Ms. Haycock) that less proficient students are dragging down top students, a finding Ms. Haycock disputed.

Less experienced teachers, 80% of whom do not have math degrees, are assigned to poorer schools and do not teach math as well as degreed math teachers who produce Algebra students who make better grades, Mr. Loveless said. Some 8th graders "know as much math as 2nd graders" and come from disproportionately poorer, larger schools, and are minorities.

In its final report the National Math Panel found knowing how to work fractions is critical to math success, but many students do not understand fractions. (Some of the panelists said many teachers who teach math do not understand fractions either so how can you effectively teach what you do not understand?)

Henry "Hank" Kepner, president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, another panelist, said teaching Algebra to all students is a civil rights issue.

Vern Williams, a Math Panel member and 35-year math teacher (which he stated four times), supports teaching Algebra to 9th graders, not 8th graders, "for equity reasons" (whatever that means).

He said administrators who often have little or no classroom experience dictate curriculum to teachers and demand that teachers promote students. He is an award-winning Fairfax County, VA math teacher.

Ms. Haycock disputed Mr. Williams' administrators' curriculum requirement which she said was often non-existent. "Teachers are handed an Algebra book and that's all they get sometimes," she said emphatically.

Mr. Williams supports teaching Algebra to students "when they are ready for it. I know some sharp 4th graders who are ready for Algebra, and some 8th-graders who are not."

Throughout the morning "pretend Algebra," "fake Algebra," and "pretend math instruction" classes were often mentioned.

Ms. Haycock said parents deserve some blame for their students' dissatisfactory grades.

Mr. Williams: "The system is also to blame, not just the teacher." And "teachers are under tremendous pressure to pass children."

A math professor in the audience stated that college freshmen increasingly enter university with inability to figure fractions. He supports strengthening state certification requirements for teachers.

Another audience member, who identified herself as a former chancellor of New York state schools, said the panel's presentation was the same content as that which would have been presented 40 years ago so what do "we" do now with all the information presented?

"What works?" she asked. "Are we going to sit here and do nothing and present the same information in 40 years?" Mr. Loveless' answer was evasive, non-committal, and insouciant. He came to present, not to act.

About 60 persons attended the briefing.

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