Marin Independent Journal – New Algebra Policy A Mistake

THE RECENT action by the California Board of Education to mandate algebra competency for all eighth-graders in the state has taken educational policy making in the state to a new level of destructive stupidity. And the timing couldn’t have been more ironic, with the almost simultaneous release of a major study that shows that the state’s dropout rate is far higher than original figures indicated, more than 25 percent.

The action by the board was in response to urging from Gov. Arnold Schwarznegger. It was strongly opposed by Jack O’Connell, the state’s superintendent of education, math instructors from around the state, and by the California School Boards Association.

The letter from the governor was a collection of predictable clich s about setting our goals higher, maintaining leadership in a global economy, and requiring “an intense commitment and increased investment.”

In some ways it’s “same old same old.”

Yes, of course it would be good to have higher student math competency and of course assessment is important. But every piece of rational evidence we have suggests that this is a very bad idea.

First, we do not have nearly enough qualified math teachers, perhaps least of all on the middle school level.

The timing is also terrible. We are in the middle of a major budget crisis and there are no funds available to make an “increased investment,” to increase the number of math teachers or provide staff development to increase their competencies.

This action is part political posturing, part a response to the urging of some business leaders and part just plain ignorance about how best we can improve student performance.

It would be simplistic to say that inspiration, really knowing and connecting with students, helping to improve the level of community engagement in schools and supporting teachers through higher salaries and more staff development will yield better results than new state requirements and mandates demanding better performance. Yet the evidence is overwhelming.

I saw it again at Eagle Rock School in Colorado, an educational oasis I visit regularly to be reminded of how things can be.

It’s there in the work of Greg Mortensen, author of the best-seller “Three Cups of Tea,” in Pakistan and Afghanistan, where the emphasis is on cooperation and inclusion in building schools that are humanly nourishing and motivating for both children and parents.

And of course, it’s there in dozens of local schools and classrooms that somehow survive state interference and know that new mandated requirements are near the bottom of the list of variables most likely to improve student performance. It is conventional wisdom that our policy makers apparently lack.

What I don’t understand is how we continue to let it happen. As the title of Rick Shenkman’s new book asks, “Just How Stupid Are We?” We share responsibility for this. I’ve seen and heard no response from any of our local legislators. Are they not tuned in to what has taken place? Are they concerned that they might appear weak on student competency and thus might lose some political support? Are they just ignorant on educational issues? Where do Jared Huffman and Mark Leno stand on the state board’s action? How about Lynn Woolsey? It wasn’t their decision, but they are supposed to be our strongest voices. Their silence is irresponsible and disturbing.

The best possible outcome would be for this decision to be reversed before its scheduled drop-dead date of 2011. Our voices need to be heard to insure that this will happen. And we need to hold our elected officials accountable for their responses or for their silence.

Mark Phillips of Woodacre is a professor of secondary education at San Francisco State University. He is a regular contributor to Marin Voice.