Justin Van Zandt is a busy dad.

He has five kids, all under 18 years old, and holds down a demanding full-time job. But that doesn’t stop him from spending all his free time teaching and tutoring his kids.

“I want my kids to do as well as possible,” says Van Zandt. “I want them all to graduate college and have good jobs. If I work hard as a parent, that’s going to give them an edge.”

Lately, Van Zandt has been focusing his time on his 11-year-old daughter, Valentina.

She’s a straight “A” student, plays four instruments and is fluent in Spanish.

She’ll be in seventh grade this fall, and her dad is determined to get her into Lowell High School, San Francisco’s highest-performing public high school.

So this summer, Valentina has been working hard to hone her math skills.

An algebraic equation is displayed on whiteboard.
An algebraic equation is displayed on whiteboard. (James Lee)

“[Math] used to come fairly easy to me, but now it’s getting a little bit challenging,” says Valentina. “[My dad] teaches a lot, but he doesn’t always have a whole lot of patience.”

Van Zandt admits he has high expectations for his children. He also has high expectations for San Francisco Unified, which is why he and many parents like him were outraged when they learned Algebra 1 will no longer be taught in middle school under Common Core, the state’s new academic standards.

Instead, all students will have to wait until their freshman year in high school to take the class.

Valentina says delaying Algebra 1 is going to hurt gifted students because some classes are “too easy” or “aren’t very challenging” for high-achieving students.

The shift to now require Algebra 1 in high school may seem like a subtle change, but it hits on a deep-rooted debate over when advanced math should be introduced, and to which students.

Some say Algebra 1 at a young age causes students to flounder.

Others say students will be unprepared for tough college-prep courses in high school if they don’t take Algebra 1 early.

Districts like Los Angeles and Oakland are going to allow some high-achieving kids to go ahead and take algebra in middle school.

But not San Francisco Unified.

For years, all eighth-graders had to take Algebra 1. The vast majority, however, either failed or did poorly in the subject.

“Those students are now in a cycle of failure,” says Lizzy Hull Barnes, mathematics program administrator for the district.

Eighth grade algebra students study at Presidio Middle School, a San Francisco Unified School District school, in 2011.
Eighth grade algebra students study at Presidio Middle School, a San Francisco Unified School District school, in 2011. (Lenny Gonzalez/MindShift)

Under the new standards, the district is no longer taking a “drill and kill” approach to math. Instead, algebraic concepts will be woven into all math courses, beginning in kindergarten.

The goal is to get students fully prepared for Math 8, a hybrid pre-algebra class in eighth grade focusing on how linear functions and equations all fit together.

Students will then take a deep dive into Algebra 1 as high school freshman, which will also include transformational geometry and angle relationships.

Hull Barnes says exposing all students to high-quality math instruction is a social justice issue for SFUSD.

District officials say the controversial practice of tracking students — or separating them based on talent and ability — is simply wrong.

Math is now supposed to be more rigorous and engaging at all levels, regardless of the students’ ability.

“What it means to be good in math is no longer about answer-getting and speed,” Hull Barnes says. “To be truly deeply proficient in math, you have to defend your reasoning and understand how a mathematical situation would apply in the real world. That’s a very significant shift.”

This summer, San Francisco math teachers have been working hard to figure out how to implement Algebra 1 under the new standards because now teachers will have to engage students at all levels.

Before, most students didn’t talk in their Algebra 1 class unless a teacher called on them for an answer.

The course was also “packed” with content, says eighth-grade teacher Vriana Kempster, forcing educators to “move pretty quickly” and “skip the parts about when you would use those skills.”

Now students will be asked to tackle a math assignment in small groups so they can discuss, interact and problem-solve together in a more methodical manner.

But is this the best thing for the super-smart kids?

A growing group of San Francisco parents don’t believe so.

They say that not allowing their children to take Algebra 1 in middle school is going to significantly slow down their progress, and they’ll wind up helping other students in class.

They’re now pressuring the district to create more options so they don’t have to choose between private school or paying extra for advanced math classes.

“It’s very disappointing to me that our education system is really starting to be this cookie-cutter approach,” says Melody Hernandez, whose 13-year-old son will be in  eighth grade this year. “It’s not feasible. … I really don’t want [my son] to lose his engagement in school because it’s not moving at a fast enough pace for him.”

The California Report’s education reporter, Ana Tintocalis, will be taking a closer look at how Common Core Academic Standards are transforming education across the state as students gear up for the 2015-2016 school year .  

San Francisco Middle Schools No Longer Teaching ‘Algebra 1’ 22 July,2015Ana Tintocalis

  • Debora Rinehart

    As a teacher I hear the “Common Core” and “Developmentally Appropriate” drum rolls almost daily.

    I wonder how our European, Middle Eastern and Asian neighbors have such “developmentally” advanced children? Or could we be really honest and admit that we hold our brightest and most capable students back to “close the gap” or we could also admit that we have difficulty hiring qualified math and science teachers so we should avoid the problem by forcing gifted students out of public schools and into private schools with scholarships.

    Incredibly unfair to poor students – also the modeling required in the Next Generation Science Standards requires algebra to achieve at high levels in middle school-so I guess SF will choose no modeling requiring math for its science program as well. Then they won’t have the pesky problem of hiring highly qualified science teachers either.

  • Marilyn Ehing

    When I went it was taught in Highschool. If these people feel it’s so important, they should band together and get a qualified tutor. Yes, they will have shell out $$$$, that’s what private school kids do all the time. And no, a lot private school kids do not come from parents with $$$. Some parents work three jobs to get the tuition together, and there are scholarships, etc. Public school kids education is really not free. And some of colleges they might want to attend, like Stanford, University of Santa Clara, University of So. California are private schools.

    • Debora Rinehart

      Marilyn: Also, across the bay students who desire advanced math can take community college courses and advance their math. However, I think the courses are not available to eighth grade students at SF City College. Paying for a tutor would not give them the credit they need and I don’t think the high school will let students take Algebra I and Geometry at the same time. Even if parents pooled money for the tutor, they wouldn’t have the needed transcript to be able to advance.

  • E. Morgan

    As an 8th Grade Math teacher, I was skeptical about not teaching Algebra 1 last year. (Our school implemented the Common Core and dropped the Algebra 1 requirement.) I was thrilled to see that even my highest performing students were highly challenged and engaged with the math curriculum. I know that they will all have more success with Algebra 1 this year in high school. For skeptics, go on to engageny.com math curriculum and work through the 8th grade math. It’s free and open for all to evaluate.

    • Debora Rinehart

      I have used engage NY and it is challenging. However, the bottom line for me is that while the Common Core math does require depth and perspective, a properly taught algebra I course using daily life and science (particularly the Next Generation Science Standards modeling) allows students to think and work deeply while integrating the work they will need to use.

      A good teacher can differentiate and have students thinking deeply. The choice being made by San Francisco Unified is to hold the best and brightest back from being able to take advanced math courses in high school. For example: 9th grade Algebra 1, 10th grade Geometry, 11th grade Algebra II / Trigonometry, 12th grade Pre-Calculus or A/B Calculus. How does B/C Calculus fit into this model? How does a Statistics course fit into this model? Advanced discrete mathematics?

      The only way a student desiring a university entrance for medicine or science would be able to get the courses they need is to take two math courses every semester of high school for the first three years and then one math course per semester for the senior year. Because there is no way to do so and take the advanced science courses a science major would want to take, the student would simply not get what they need in a public school in San Francisco.

      My guess is that you are a middle school math teacher who may not have had a child who was advanced in math and science. My own daughter loved her number “friends” – squared numbers, square roots and the first 20 prime numbers beginning in kindergarten. While Common Core keeps her from being marked down for have sequential ways outside the textbook for solving mathematical equations, it does not take her or students like her where they need to go in high school. As a result she had two choices – take community college courses in the evening (outside of SF which was in danger of losing accreditation) or to apply to a private school and take a scholarship.

      I really feel the brightest students have had their opportunities diminished in favor of not making some students feel bad. If you want the deep thinking of Common Core great – teach it before school and require it for those students who take Algebra I during the day or vice versa, however, students have the legal right to a “free and appropriate” education.

      • E. Morgan

        You make some good points. Hopefully, as California opens the purse strings for education, schools will be able to accommodate all levels of learning. I’m sure you’re one of those good teachers able to seamlessly differentiate. All three of my children were “GATE” kids with all the advantages. My youngest, now at Harvard, was a math major. So I can see both sides.

        • RenoParent

          So until CA can “accommodate all levels of learning,” it is best to ignore the brightest math students? CC math has already failed in CA and it ignores the top 30% of math students, https://w.soundcloud.com/player/?url=https%3A//api.soundcloud.com/tracks/165343334&auto_play=false&hide_related=false&show_comments=true&show_user=true&show_reposts=false&visual=true As the district says, “THE DISTRICT SEES THS AS A SOCIAL JUSTICE ISSUE.”

          • Foolish Pride

            Harrison Bergeron syndrome.

          • RenoParent

            My son finished his CC math (algebra 2) as a ninth grader. If he was in a SFU school he would be two years behind his ability, and would not have been able to complete two years of AP Calculus and two years of AP Physics in high school, as he did moving at his own pace. He is my oldest and my other three kids probably won’t complete two years of AP Calc. and AP Physics as he did. We are not all equal!

          • Akhibrass

            You don’t seem to know what “justice” means, do you? The public school has an obligation to help all it’s students, not just the so-called “gifted’ ones. They are probably the ones who need the least help.

          • Akhibrass

            Yes, the schools priority is to “accommodate all levels of learning”. The brightest are not being ignored, but the school may not be capable of providing the advanced lessons that they desire.

          • RenoParent

            You don’t accommodate ALL levels of learning by ignoring the top 30%. By telling a 7th or 8th grader who is ready for algebra they can’t take if until 9th you are holding them back.

      • Akhibrass

        Please, it has nothing to do with “making some students feel bad”. It’s about resources, and giving a “free and appropriate” education to ALL students.

        • RenoParent

          SFU is NOT saying they don’t have the resources to teach algebra to younger students; they ARE saying it is a social justice issue. If my public middle school in NV with about 230 children can teach algebra to 8th graders and on occasion a 7th grader SFU can too. Math should not be a social justice issue.

    • RenoParent

      Some parents call it EnRage New York.

      • vusi

        Some parents don’t know what they’re talking about.

        • RenoParent

          New York is two years ahead of CA in CC testing. This year almost 20% of parents in New York kept their kids out of CC tests, I guess you know what is best for their kids. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/21/nyregion/opt-out-movement-against-common-core-testing-grows-in-new-york-state.html?_r=0
          Some people named vusi don’t know what they are talking about.

          • vusi

            Again, parents after don’t know what they are speaking or writing about. You can see it in the confusion between standards and curriculum in the comments above. I would also point out that increasing percentages of parents are not getting their kids vaccinated. Does that mean they know more than the health professionals?

          • RenoParent

            I am a teacher with four children non of my children will ever take the SBAC. Almost everything about Common Core, CC testing, and the dumbing down of our schools, is wrong. For the record my oldest finished his CC math (algebra 2) as a ninth grader. It appears some high schools will soon stop teaching trig/pre-calculus and calculus. Under CC teachers, schools, and admininstrators are graded in part by scores on CC tests, so there is no incentive to move kids past algebra 2.

          • Akhibrass

            Common Core is definitely not “dumbing down” but it does make it harder for upper class parents to “buy” their children’s way to the top.

          • RenoParent

            CC is a one size fits “some” model of education. According to Dr. Milgram Standford, CC math ignores the top 30% of math students,
            https://www.nevadansagainstcommoncore.com/problems-with–cc-math.html
            The fact that my son finished CC math in 9th grade says a lot.

  • I am a strong believer in public education, but what I have experienced at one of the richest districts in the state has made me very sad. They keep saying “it’ll get better” but my daughter is now going into 4th and it hasn’t gotten better, she’s just given up. The best and brightest are being held down and back. Algebra 1 should not be required but it should be taught to those that can handle it. Parents shouldn’t have to go outside or kids cram over the summer. The schools should provide for all levels, including the brightest.

    Parts of Common Core as it is being interpreted/implemented is a joke amongst my math/science friends. The last question on the 1st-3rd math worksheets is always an “explain.” That’s nice and touchy-feely, but not really necessary. For example, “explain why 2+3 = 5.” It’s like “guess what I’m thinking?” My answer would be “because it is.” My child who is brilliant at math and a perfectionist is racking her head trying to figure out what the teacher wants for that last question and to answer the question. What a waste of time. Math should be numbers not words. (though word problems are fine)

    • Gretchen Beam

      Thank you…I teach elementary school and here is my little secret…I don’t CARE if you can explain a simple math problem. I want you to know it in your head and be able to use it in a variety of problems. I think we can leave the explaining for higher level math problems….We track all the time, isn’t that guided reading is??? The gifted and students who excel at math should be able to take Algebra 1 in 8th grade…..It is almost like we do not want to anyone to excel anymore so we don’t hurt other people’s feelings.

      • Bill Jeffs

        Like me, I’m sure you’re fairly intelligent but you should use a spell checker/grammer checker a little more….

        • Gretchen Beam

          Not sure if that was for me but I was typing fast and that would be grammar not grammar. No need to be so rude

        • karen_green

          so should you, because you spelled grammar wrong.

      • vusi

        Gretchen, you should care. See my comments above. The explaining formalizes the understanding for the student. It is essential at all levels ESPECIALLY at the lower levels.

        • RCraigen

          No. The “explaining” in early grades is simply “rote understanding”. It is a student engaging in the exercise of guessing (or learning) what the teacher wants to hear and repeating it. When teachers themselves happen to be weak in the subject, the exercise becomes comical and sad. How are such teachers to determine even when students’ “explanations” even make sense? I’ve seen some truly disastrous attempts, the blame for which one should not lay at the feet of the teacher in most cases, it’s the craziness of the whole enterprise. The appropriate way to “explain”, as Garelick describes, is to *show your work*. Proper presentation of mathematical work comprises an explanation — the only one that’s needed — of WHY the answer is what it is. So much ‘student centered’ methodology is being introduced students are no longer learning how to arrange statements and calculations on a page so that they lay out clearly how an answer is arrived at. The work should BE the explanation, and when it is, it is elegant, and satisfying to the student, and easy to evaluate for the teacher. That is what 3000 years of mathematical development has given us; why take it away from our children? It is a birthright, a gift from past generations. As Newton said, “if I have seen further than others it is because I have stood on the shoulders of giants”.

          Give them a leg up, and show them mathematically correct ways of laying out work so that it is an explanation. Standard algorithms, disciplined presentation of work, less random, cluttered strewing of symbols and diagrams around the page willy-nilly. There is a myth held by some educators that in this noisy cluttered environment students are somehow showing “deep understanding”, particularly in “lower levels” as vusi indicates here. Uh, no that’s false. The less a student knows the less meaning can be inferred from their scribbles on the page. Understanding, critical thinking, problem solving come when students can draw on a strong foundation of domain content relevant to the topic currently being learned. As students find their feet and establish a larger repertoire of mastered knowledge and methods, the more articulate they can become in explanations. Put in neuroscience terms … the pre-frontal cortex (where critical thinking takes place) is underdeveloped in early & middle years. It undergoes rapid development through teen years (where self-concept is growing) and this is where students should be challenged to more sophisticated reasoning, explanation of meaning and so on. It is not fully developed until one reaches early adulthood, sometime in one’s 20s. When a small child is asked to engage in critical thinking about abstract ideas, they will produce a response that may look like independent reasoning to an untrained adult, but it will involve more of a limbic response. That is, they are responding emotionally and intuitively, not logically and with “understanding”. That may be behaviourally interesting, but it is not mathematical development and it leaves them behind in the development of their fundamental skills.

          In short, Gretchen has it right.

          • vusi

            So because YOU believe the elementary and middle school teachers incapable, we should avoid reforms that will improve education and learning for all students. Your comment is misguided and inaccurate.

          • RCraigen

            @vusi, I don’t believe teachers incapable, and I don’t know where you get that from my comment. I believe them poorly prepared and ill-advised about educational research. They are badly served by the class of educationists who advise and resource them.

            Give ANY child who has not been exposed to arithmetic in alternative bases a problem in base 8 or 5 and they will be unable to do it. What on earth does that purport to prove? I am occasionally called in to do enrichment in public schools, and base systems is a lovely topic for this, which is useful to expand students’ understanding and mastery. Those with procedural mastery generally have no difficulty transferring this skill to the new context when properly taught. One could deliberately teach in a confounding manner designed to obscure the simple logic behind them. I’ve no doubt you are able, and possibly even motivated, to provide such students with unscaffolded “lessons” in which they are unlikely to succeed. If so, I suspect that says more about you as a teacher than about the capacity of such students.

            The largest educational study in history, Project Follow Through, a 10-year longitudinal study involving hundreds of thousands of students, examined the relative effects on learning of some 22 educational models roughly broken down into three types according to which of three domains they emphasized:

            (i) basic skills
            (ii) cognitive
            (iii) affective

            As you likely know, domain (ii) means “understanding”. These were systems (such as the High/Scope Cognitively-Oriented Curriculum, very similar to today’s “understanding-first” models) that purported to teach understanding through experimentation, inquiry and discovery. domain (iii) means emotional well-being, self-worth, confidence etc.

            Students were tested throughout using a battery of tests to measure progress in all three domains. And control groups comprising of comparable schools where none of the interventions were applied were used for comparison.

            The results were unequivocal. Of the 9 major models (3 of each kind) in the final analysis emphasizing domains (ii) and (iii) did MORE POORLY in those domains. More poorly than the skills-domain models, and more poorly than the CONTROL groups. To put it plainly, the evidence from the largest educational study in history strongly suggests that these understanding-first approaches harm students acquisition of understanding.

            What about the basic skills models? They did better than the cognitive domain models in the cognitive domain. One model, Direct Instruction (in which teachers directly show students how to do things). outperformed all other major models in ALL THREE domains, performing far above the control groups, too, in all three domains.

            To put it in plain terms, the models in which students were directly shown how to do things outperformed the “cognitive domain” models in teaching understanding before procedure. And it wasn’t even close.

            Read about PFT here http://psych.athabascau.ca/html/387/OpenModules/Engelmann/evidence.shtml

          • Foolish Pride

            I don’t have much to add but your comments in this thread were very informative.

          • RCraigen

            Thanks FP. Indeed, it’s remarkable how strong this case about direct instruction is — and still is ignored and/or scoffed at by educationists. PFT is only one study, albeit the largest ever. The particular model used there was more prescriptive than in many studies, but that doesn’t appear to be the reason for its success (it’s creator, Sig Engelmann, says he prefers it without the scripting but that was developed as a solution to the teacher-training problem for such a large-scale study). But if you just study garden-variety direct instruction “in the wild” it still stands head and shoulders above the discovery approaches (at least with young children). For example, the 2010 contextual data for the cross-Canada PCAP assessment constructed variables “direct instruction” and “indirect Instruction” out of survey data in which students and teachers answer questions about what kind of tasks are given in math classes. They correlated with scores on the assessment. Any guesses what was found? In areas that scored high on Direct Instruction, math PCAP scores were high; in areas that scored high on Indirect Instruction, math PCAP scores were low. And this correlation was one of the most striking found in this exhaustive analysis of math instruction across Canada. Or, if one prefers informal anecdotal data but taken on an enormous scale, consider what many parents do to remediate when their kids start floundering in discovery-type programs: enrol them in Kumon or similar tutorial services, where they get genuine help and improve. Do those tutorial services rely on discovery or Direct instruction? I’ll let you be the judge. As the educational machine manages to swing things further and further into the discovery camp, what is happening? I’m not sure about Canada, but in a little over 10 years the tutorial service industry in the U.S. has grown threefold. THREEFOLD! Now perhaps Vusi will say all those parents patronizing that industry are just stupid and don’t know what’s good for their kids … but I’ll put my money on the collective instincts of our moms on this issue over all the high-sounding theories of the educationists.

          • Akhibrass

            I suspect the tutoring industry has grown for the same reason most industries grow: Effective Marketing. Most of those programs don’t work. I also suspect that the assessments they used in that study were more sensitive to direct instructions than indirect instruction. The latter focuses on understanding not computation. If the assessments emphasized computation than of course kids who got direct instruction would do better. However, will those students do better if the assessments focused on giving proofs or showing conceptual understanding?

          • RCraigen

            I gather with Akhibrass the case is “scoffed at” as opposed to “Ignored”. You suspect? Ask any parent who’s put their student in tutoring or after school programs lately and they’ll tell you the reason: It’s a response to the decline in value in math education in the public school, and due almost entirely to whiz-bang pedagogy-du-jour methodologies that ignore classic educational wisdom.

            “If the assessments emphasized computation”? If that is a response to my mention of PFT (Project Follow Through), the largest educational experiment in history, you evidently need to do a bit of homework, Akh. Students learning under all models in that experiment were subjected to a battery of standard tests including:

            WRAT (Wide Range Achievement Test)
            PPVT (Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test)
            PSI (Caldwell Prescchool Inventory)
            MAT (Metropolitan Achievement Test)
            IARS (Intellectual Achievement Responsibility Scale)
            Raven’s (Raven’s Coloured Progressive Matrices)
            Coopersmith (Coopersmith Self-Esteem Inventory)

            These widely-used tests gave research-standard placements for students on broad scales of:

            1. Skills
            2. Cognitive Domain (Understanding and insight)
            3. Affective Domain (self-esteem and emotional response)

            All model sponsors (including the “discovery-based” ones) accepted these tests at the outset as appropriate measures of skills, understanding and self-esteem for this decade-long longitudinal planned variation study involving hundreds of thousands of children situated across the continental U.S.

            The three models that focussed on cognitive domain, using more-or-less exactly the discovery approach we’ve seen pushed in teacher workshops for the last 20 years, consistently performed LOWER THAN the control groups in that domain. In other words, those that pretended (as does this system today) to teach understanding by a high road that does not go through the low road of basic skills, did more poorly than classes teaching using “business as usual”, i.e., none of the experimental models were used.

            The models that emphasized basic skills outperformed the control on the cognitive domain. Surprised? You wouldn’t be if you’d been reading lots of comparative studies testing this relationship. Skills-based models consistently outperform “cognitive” models ON TESTS OF COGNITIVE DEVELOPMENT (i.e., growth in understanding).

            Skills models also performed well on the other two domains. One in particular, a specific highly structured instruction system called “Direct Instruction” outperformed the entire field of 9 major models in the final evaluation — and it wasn’t even close. This model dominated the “cognitive” models in all three measurement domains.

            Read about PFT. Here’s an excellent summary on the Athabasca University website:
            http://psych.athabascau.ca/html/387/OpenModules/Engelmann/evidence.shtml
            If you’re interested in the shenanigans the educational industry engaged in to try to bury and minimize the conclusions of PFT, Carnine summarizes what happened here:
            http://www.wrightslaw.com/info/teach.profession.carnine.pdf

            If you want to dig deeper into PFT I can point you to the original sources and 30 years of scholarly discussion of the project; let me know.

          • RenoParent

            The people who wrote Common Core (CC) and our leaders either ignored or don’t know about the research. My guess – the writers of CC know exactly what they are doing, but our leaders have no idea what the research shows.

          • Akhibrass

            Sorry, but the brain is plastic, when you challenge it at an early age it will respond.

          • RCraigen

            Are you familiar with the stages of the development of the Prefrontal Cortex, Akh? The place, that is, where critical thinking, problem solving, decision making and self-concept is centered? It is the last part of the brain to mature. Its period of rapid growth is through the teen years (note how most teens go through phases trying to develop their sense of identity, and classical math education passed into more abstract symbols and expectation of more formal explanations and proofs), and reaches full maturity only in one’s twenties. The 21st century child’s brain does not develop differently than yours did.

            Yes, the brain is plastic. But small children, in compensation for the delayed PFC growth, fall back on more primitive strategies: In problem-solving they will use the limbic (emotive) system to cope with complexity, and tackle problems by intuition. They also are wired to seek adult approval, and will pick up on subtle clues concerning what they believe a teacher wants to hear from them — thus “rote understanding”: they are saying what they think will please the adults.

            Plenty of interesting psychological experiments bear this out. For example, very young children shown two sets of bottles — a few large bottles and a larger number of small bottles, will correctly answer that there are more bottles in the latter set. But later they begin to answer that the smaller set of large bottles has more. At first experimenters thought this signalled a strange growth phase in which the concept of cardinality is forgotten. But later it was determined that what is happening is that as children begin to visualize what other minds are thinking they start imagining that the adults have in mind the total “amount” of bottle, not mere cardinality and start giving what they believe the intended answer is.

            Be careful what you infer about what’s happening in a child’s mind; even experts are often astonished at the degree to which they take their cues from adults, even under tightly controlled experimental conditions.

      • Barry Garelick

        Yes, I agree about explaining. Showing the math in an organized fashion should be enough explanation for most problems at this level. See http://www.educationnews.org/k-12-schools/math-problems-knowing-doing-and-explaining-your-answer/

    • vusi

      “Explain” isn’t touchy, feely. It is at the very essence of understanding. When students can’t explain OR illustrate how they got their solution or explain how they know it’s correct, I’m skeptical of how much their understand.

      I have many students who are proficient at the standard algorithm for subtraction of multi-digit numbers but most can’t explain why the “borrowing” system works AND can’t extend it to different bases. That tells me they don’t really understand place value either.

      Explaining is important. Kids (and adults) don’t like it because it is hard, requires thought and takes longer. And strangely, for all the people who like to give lectures about how math is used in “real life,” showing your work and explaining it is essential in EVERY paper and proof.

      • Ashley Renner

        I’ve never really agreed with the argument that you have to explain your work in “real life,” so requiring kids to explain their math “Common Core-style” in elementary school will prepare them for it.

        For one thing, with my engineering background, I can attest that the explanations that my children are required to do in Common Core math (elementary school) are nothing like the explanations that are required in the real world. About the only thing the explanations in elementary school and the real world have in common is they both use words and numbers. In fact, the Common Core explanations have problematic weaknesses: they lack precision, use too much jargon, and devote too much time to explaining things that are facts that everybody would agree on (like 2+2=4).

        It’s almost as if you’re saying that in the real world, people are expected to talk. Therefore, talking about Common Core math will help them!

        • vusi

          That is not CCSS. That is curriculum. Why do many educated people can’t comprehend the difference between what students are supposed to be able to do (standards) and how they are taught to do it (curriculum) is beyond me. It also dooms discussions such as this one because of the very jargon and imprecise vocabulary about which you complain.

          • Ashley Renner

            Written explanations for basic math are required in the standards. My daughter told me that she had to provide written explanations for basic math on the SBAC test. Therefore, in this case, my problem is with the standards not the curriculum.

            That said, I understand that the standards are supposed to be pedagogically neutral. Zimba himself has said so. And yet, prior to Common Core, in my city, people could choose between school districts that focused on direct instruction or public charter schools that focused on a more student-centered pedagogy. Now, there are no choices. Every single school district that I can drive to has responded to Common Core in the same way: more group work, more collaboration, teachers are the guides on the side. As Zimba has said, “one can still be concerned if everybody’s pedagogical interpretation of the standards turns out to be exactly the same.”

    • NHactivistGOP

      Well said.

    • Akhibrass

      Asking kids to “explain” is asking them to think at a higher level beyond just basic computation(that a dumb calculator can do) There is nothing “nice and touchy-feely” about it. The fact that your “brilliant” child can’t do it shows that explaining your work(developing proofs) is taking math to another level.

  • Becky

    As a middle school teacher, I am glad to see this. When I was in school in the 70’s they did not offer Algebra until 9th grade. Also, on our standardized testing, many of our so called “accelerated” students do not do so well with fractions, percentages and proportions because at some point they have skipped a year of math to move ahead. That is probably the only thing I agree with in common core. Why are we rushing our children? A few years ago I read an article about how some students who had taken advanced math courses were taking remedial math in college because they did poorly on tests given to the freshman. Many of these students lacked some basic skills. I have had many students who were placed in Algebra that did not even have command of their basic multiplication facts and even though some of them make it through, they do so with limited understanding.

  • DrG

    When I went to school many decades ago, I took Algebra in 9th grade. But then while I was taking that, later in the year I started 10th grade math (Geometry) and then again in 10th grade doubled up again with 11th grade math (Fusion which is Trig and Int Algebra), and then doubled again in 11th grade to finish 12th year math by the end of the 11th year. I was then able to take a year of The Calculus before I graduated high school. This was in Brooklyn NY where I grew up. (I didn’t get less than a 92 on each of the Regents tests for each level of math.) If a student is capable, they should be allowed to do it. The earlier they learn the better. There is so much more to learn today than when I went to school, so the school system must monitor each student as to how fast they are able to progress, and challenge them to do so.

  • RenoParent
  • Barry Garelick

    San Luis Coastal school district has made it more difficult for students to take algebra in 8th grade. Previously they used a placement test called MDTP, which did a fairly decent job of identifying students who were ready for algebra in 8th grade. In the 2013-14 school year, about 300 students were taking algebra in 8th grade. I taught 60 of those that year in a middle school where I taught pre-algebra and algebra. The students I had were well – prepared except perhaps for 3 or 4 out of the total of 60.

    That year, San Luis Coastal introduced an additional test besides the MDTP for determining who should take algebra 1. It was a test devised by Silicon Valley Math Initiative. The test consisted of ambiguous and difficult to decipher questions that supposedly measure “deeper understanding” of math. As a result, the number of students qualifying for algebra 1 in 8th grade dropped to 46 from 300 the previous year. I suspect that there were more than a few who didn’t qualify who would have done just fine.

    I understand the criticism about pushing students not ready into algebra 1; that’s a valid criticism. But I think it’s absolutely shameful to keep qualified students out by virtue of a fuzzy-oriented test.

    • Tracy

      As the article states, “the vast majority” of students who were forced to take algebra 1 in 8th grade either failed or did poorly. I wish they had stated a percentage, but one assumes “vast majority” means somewhere above 70%ish. If that’s the case, then that is not working for the “vast majority”.
      I also do not know that a student who was “good in math” previously, necessarily IS good at math. I saw many an “A” student hit algebra and really struggle because they didn’t really know what they were doing they were just regurgitating…they had no way to apply basic math concepts to the new abstract content in algebra, because they only knew distinct facts and swift procedures. Algebra really is the first place where students’ misunderstandings and content holes really show up.
      Are there some students who are truly ready for Algebra in 8th grade or earlier? Sure. Many? I’m still not convinced. Maybe the “fuzzy test” added another layer of accuracy. One question about that is did the end of year Algebra grades change before that placement test was used and after?

      • Barry Garelick

        San Luis Coastal uses the MDTP and now the SVMI. The MDTP was used for years and was developed jointly by CSU and UC. It is a good indicator. As I said, the students in my class were well prepared and of the 60 students, maybe 3 or 4 fit your description of struggling and not knowing what they were doing. MDTP has worked well as a screening mechanism for years; students need to have an 80% or better on that exam in order to qualify for algebra in 8th grade. The demographic and student ability is unlikely to have drastically changed in one year. I find that going from 300 to 46 raises questions about the criteria. In my school alone there were perhaps 100 students taking algebra 1 in 8th grade, some of whom were 7th graders. It is difficult for me to believe that now only 46–less than the number of students I had in my classes–were truly ready for algebra based on the added exam, which as I say was an ambiguous and hard to decipher exam.

        I don’t understand your question about end of year algebra grades. The placement exam for algebra is given to 6th and 7th graders. I don’t know what the end of year grades in algebra were for this year. I know that in my classes, the majority received As and B’s and my tests were not easy.

        Since this article is about San Francisco, that may encompass different demographics. I find, however, that the push to keep students out of Algebra 1 in 8th grade stems largely from a push from CDE to limit enrollment and keep as many in CC Math 8 classes as possible. Parents are told that the CC aligned Math 8 contains much of algebra 1. I have been at a middle school this past year and have observed the math 8 classes. I can tell you that the content of Math 8 contained about the same amount of algebra as a 7th grade pre-algebra class.

  • Jwen

    One of the problems with the sequence is the Precal/Algebra II compression class. The only high school in SF that currently has it is Washington and its success has been limited. A significant portion of the class has to retake precal the following year.

    • atworkforu

      The way it looks to me (and they have put much of their curriculum materials behind a login) that even with the compression year, the most you could get is Calculus AB. Is that correct? What does that say about Physics C? Is it even offered in SF? Will it be sustainable under this new curriculum?

      • Jwen

        Lowell is planning on getting rid of it and I think most schools are planning to get rid of BC Calc.

    • RenoParent

      It’s too bad that SFU can’t get it right. Our public high school in Incline Village, NV has less than 300 students (total) and the students who get to AP Calculus AB and BC do well on the AP exam. I’m not sure why SFU can’t service their high achieving math students, oh I remember, social justice.

  • toorahloo

    I have a hard time figuring out where I stand on decisions like this. I’ve worked in education for 15 years and am also deeply involved in equity issues (in research and action). On an academic level, I understand that tracking is a social justice issue. On a personal level, I’m very dismayed by delaying Algebra to high school. I started becoming bored in school in 3rd grade and had I not been forced to enroll in a rigorous private school (due to a family move abroad), I think I would have started exhibiting serious behavioral issues. I started learning Algebra concepts in 4th grade, a little from my mom and a little from my teacher, and then had my first full year of Algebra in 6th grade. I took Geometry and Precalculus in a summer school for gifted children so that I completed multi-variable calculus before leaving high school. Culturally, among other accelerated/gifted students, we laughed at students who didn’t start Algebra until HS or who entered college without ever taking calculus. I’m not proud of that, but I think that culture still exists, and I think people who are now high achievers in tertiary education or professionally also had very early options to accelerate. I believe that I’ve gotten to where I am academically and professionally because of a few factors – a stable middle class family, LOTS of home teaching by my mom, and the opportunity to accelerate as much as I wanted. I don’t think the solution to tracking is to delay advanced math for everyone; rather, why don’t we invest money into improving the socioeconomic environment of students who are lagging and provide all students with the possibility and choice to accelerate or not? When we look at the way that top private schools (define top as you wish – but alumni success/stability may be one), they are certainly not forcing all students to follow one, slow path. I think we’d do much better by making investments (to put it in capitalist terms) in reducing economic inequities, improving maternal and child health, and supplementing learning for at-risk youth so that they have the intellectual and emotional fortitude and external supports to pursue a pathway of their choice in MS, HS, and beyond.

    • Wayne Bishop

      Resolving inequities in education by resolving economic inequalities is a nice goal but is pie-in-the-sky for students currently in the pipeline which are being addressed here. Deliberately retarding the progress of students who are ready to move on is immoral no matter what their socioeconomic status, race, or ethnicity might be. Beyond that, it can have the reverse result as it did with my own children here in Pasadena Unified with us finally pulling them out of public school and enrolling them in a private school (along with about one third of the school-age children in the Pasadena region) thereby making the public schools a little worse while making that private school a little better (verifiable just from the former believable standardized test results). Who knows what our new generation of “smarter and balanced” BS will give us. It can be no worse than the misconceptions that surround our “professional” concept of “deeper understanding”. Nothing demonstrates genuine understanding (at the appropriate level)better than appropriately grade-level “cookbook” word problems properly assigning variables, a properly identified sketch if appropriate, clean well-presented mathematics solution, finally interpreted back in terms of the original setting. Paragraphs or pages of explanation don’t contribute; they get in the road. Well-run “deeper understanding” middle school math classes at strong private schools are surprisingly reminiscent of those in the high-performing Asian nations as this study showed (completely upsetting the preconceptions of what this college math ed program expected to see). There is a reality in effective mathematics communication and, if the program is not sufficiently challenging, bump them up – all the way to my university if need be.
      http://www.linfield.edu/linfield-news/students-and-prof-examine-why-japan-outsmarts-u-s-in-math-scores/
      ———————————————-
      Japanese teachers focus much more on whole-group instruction with little interaction.

      “Students sit in rows and are expected to listen quietly. Teachers rely on direct instruction rather than investigative mathematics, but although they ask few questions, the questions they do ask are useful in guiding student understanding.”

      “Not a single student pulled out a calculator during class,” Drickey said. There were no overhead projectors, televisions, computers or laptops.
      ————————————————
      Feel free to extrapolate through high school and university mathematics classes such as my own. Actually, extrapolating in the opposite direction – all the way down to 2nd grade and beyond – is also appropriate:
      http://thecolbertreport.cc.com/videos/nemi1a/common-core-confusion

      Is there any way to communicate with those parents in San Francisco with strong math backgrounds who know better than to accept this well-meaning but misguided policy?

      wbishop@calstatela.edu

  • Tim Sylvester

    “Some say Algebra 1 at a young age causes students to flounder.”

    When I was in 7th grade, I was in the “B” math group and bored out of my mind. My 7th grade math teacher recognized that I was ready for more advanced math and recommended that I take Algebra in 8th grade. I was ecstatic and it start my love affair with math. Now I am a software engineer at Google. I guess taking Algebra in 8th grade didn’t cause me to “flounder.”

    • vusi

      Tim, the exception doesn’t prove the rule. Neither do we know if you might have been even better at what you do had you gone a different way. We only know what happened for you and what you think is the cause.

      • Barry Garelick

        And what data do you have that proves what you claim to be “the rule”? Do you know how many students in SF actually qualified? There are students who qualify for algebra 1 in 8th grade. Why should they be prevented from taking it?

  • Bill Jeffs

    I don’t see the problem. I never had Algebra in pre-high. In fact, my first Algebra class was in college. Maybe I’m gifted but I got a 3.5 GPA for Algebra and a 3.8 overall in college. I’ve since completed my second bachelors in Electrical Engineering and still didn’t take Algebra in junior high…thank goodness for spell checkers though….

  • Amy

    This is a travesty. There should be a pathway to Algebra I in 8th grade. There are kids who are capable of Algebra I in 8th grade and they should have that opportunity. If the proper foundation is laid in K to 7, then some kids will be ready for Algebra I. It is important for STEM fields to have that option in 8th grade.

    • vusi

      Missing the point. It’s not a race and when you treat it as such you cheat, but the disadvantaged student, but rather the gifted student who picks up procedures and patterns quickly but doesn’t get a chance to EXPLORE the concepts.

    • susannunes

      It is developmentally inappropriate for most. It guarantees failure for students, which is the reason non educators started pushing it.

      • CTD

        Sure, it’s hard for the dumb and average kids, but that’s an argument for splitting up classes, not for punishing the bright kids who can handle it.

        • Akhibrass

          Splitting up the classes helps no one. When the “smart”(or better prepared students) have the opportunity to teach and help others it benefits both. Teaching helps kids learn and learning from one’s peers is often better than learning from adults.

          • MoralsAndDogma

            Actually, splitting the classes helps the advanced kids. They now have access to challenging material and can learn at an accelerated pace.

    • Akhibrass

      If the proper foundation is laid in K to 7, then some kids will be ready for Algebra I.”

      That’s what their doing! They are trying to make sure ALL students are prepared for Algebra by teaching them algebra concepts at a young age.

  • SteveH

    “But not San Francisco Unified.”
    This is educational incompetence.

    “For years, all eighth-graders had to take Algebra 1. The vast majority, however, either failed or did poorly in the subject.”
    Rather than fix the problem, they make it go away.

    “Under the new standards, the district is no longer taking a “drill and kill” approach to math.”
    What have they been using for the last 20 years? I’ll bet it wasn’t “drill and kill.” It was probably something like MathLand, TERC, and Everyday Math.

    ” … because now teachers will have to engage students at all levels.”
    Right. Blah, blah, woof, woof.

    • Akhibrass

      Rather than fix the problem, they make it go away”

      Nope, they will actually be learning algebra at a younger age, so they will be better prepared for high school article. Reading comprehension, it’s your friend.

      • SteveH

        They will NOT be learning algebra at a younger age. Anyone should be able to slow down and push real algebra to ninth grade and get better average results, but that doesn’t fix the problems in K-6. Slowing down bad might be better, but it’s not good. Schools have been able to offer different tracks in math starting in seventh grade for generations. Not doing so is incompetence.

        ” … because now teachers will have to engage students at all levels.”

        “Now?” What this means is full inclusion. This is a pedagogy issue, not one of resources.

  • susannunes

    Good for the district. It is totally age inappropriate to cram algebra down the throats of middle school .kids. It guarantees most kids will fail. The reason for this has to do with abstract thinking ability, and most kids don’t have this ability until high school or even later. Algebra is all abstract and very difficult for young children. By all means have courses for the so called gifted, but do not force all kids to do this. Many kids are unnecessarily in special ed because of inappropriate math curriculum.

    • Foolish Pride

      I went to school with people who took Algebra 1 in 7th grade. There are certainly students who can handle the material. They aren’t being held back because they can’t handle it but rather because the school system would rather level everyone in the name of “Social Justice” than let children rise to the level they are capable of.

      • Eggo

        I took algebra 1 in 7th grade. Can’t imagine how boring modern schools must be.

  • NHactivistGOP

    Oddly enough, many of us learned math the traditional way and were fully prepared for Algebra I by 8th grade. A solid understanding of basic math prepares kids for Algebra I. The problem is that fuzzy methods have been introduced and now kids are confused, the progression has been slowed down and there is not enough focus on memorizing the basics.

    Is it any wonder kids are no longer prepared by 8th grade?

    This article shows that instead of going back to what works, they are going to double down on the mess they created. (They meaning the Common Core proponents and the old proponents of fuzzy math)

    Parents, get your kids tutoring in real math and avoid this train wreck.

  • John
  • Jeff
  • Karen

    The government is turning socialist, why shouldn’t schools, too? Trying really hard to fit your peg-round, square, triangle- into same hole. There is hardly ever room for a one solution fits all anymore.

  • Johanna Langill

    There is a ton of Algebra in Math 8, and now Algebra concepts that were considered Algebra 2 are folded into Algebra 1. Course titles are not a good proxy for the actual content. So while we no longer expect students to master all of Algebra in 8th grade, or deal with all of the most formal symbolic elements of algebra, they are still getting a lot of that content. Unfortunately, it takes time for the public and parents to differentiate between the title “Algebra” and the actual content of the course.

  • atworkforu

    Rearranging the math curriculum by a year isn’t the biggest deal in the world. The bigger deal here is the elimination of laneing in middle school, and the effective elimination of BC Calculus, which means the elimination of the more challenging Physics C classes. I think it is a big deal that they are district wide giving up on the most challenging scientific/mathmatic classes. It’s also really odd to do this district wide, as opposed to leaving it available in a selection of schools. I’d be thinking of pulling my kid, if I lived in the district.

  • samanthasprau

    I think people focusing on the “When To teach ____” are missing out on some key issues with the way math is taught in middle/high school. I am not saying take it out, or add it in, but I think we have a problem with 1)Parents thinking their kids are ready for things when they are not 2)8th grade being an awkward time for students overall 3) An over arching theme that if you don’t understand on the first try you don’t really have to try to understand (AKA, it is ok to be “bad” at math.)

  • Katie Waddle

    I am a teacher in SFUSD that has been part of the implementation of the new curriculum around Common Core. I encourage KQED to avoid using parents’ opinions as proxy for real research about how students learn. There are a lot of issues of systemic racism that are cloaked behind the phrase “super-smart kids”. KQED should know better than to suggest that kids who have parents that can teach them in their spare time somehow deserve special separate classes away from the other students whose parents don’t have that luxury. SFUSD has the data to show how truly damaging Algebra in 8th grade was for kids. The new plan is extensively research-based (Stanford, etc), and if given a chance will mean real improvements for kids at all levels, even the “super smart” ones. Publish that data. Done with the story.

    • Scott

      I would love to see that data because the only data I’ve seen is one Stanford study done with a tiny sample size in an environment unlike anything a student in SFUSD is likely to encounter. If there is more data that this was based on then please post it.

      • Katie Waddle

        SFUSD has thoroughly researched their own student data, and has presented that research at board meetings on several occasions. KQED can contact the district if they are interested.

        • Kheart

          I have read a lot of the papers cited by SFUSD and it appears that they didn’t really read what they were doing.

          SFUSD cited a school in Ny that got rid of tracking. However, this school got rid of the regular track and forced everyone into honors. They had lower class sizes and provided extra out of class help and tutoring for those in regular classes before.

          In another paper by Dr. Watanabe, said that differentiation worked. However in an email to PPS, he stated that what it comes down to is low class sizes and quality of instructor.

          SFUSD has only decided to lower class sizes in 8th grade. Also the achievement gap starts in 2nd grade when there is no honors. Honors classes are not the problem in SF. Our gap does not start with honors like it does in other districts.

          In addition, so many middle class parents locally have opted to send their kids to private schools who are very willing to give financial aid to SFUSD kids. How is that good for public schools?

    • Marisol Gonzalez

      Hello Katie. I 100% agree that there are issues of systemic racism, but I want to point out that “smart kids” does not unequivocally mean students that have extra assistance at home from parents. I was one of the students at Aptos Middle School who tested into and took Algebra 1 in 8th grade and I’m pretty sure I was in the top five students of my classroom (not my grade level), but I did not have assistance with Algebra at home. I thank Aptos for that because as a result I was able to take Calc BC my senior year and got a 5 on the exam. My point is that while you are right that opinion is not a proxy for research, I do believe that if enough parents (and students) want the opportunity to take Algebra 1 in 8th grade if they test into it that should be allowed.

      • Katie Waddle

        I completely agree Marisol that many students “achieve” in school without support from their parents. There are hundreds of other factors that lead to students “achieving”. I think what SFUSD is asking us to do, however is to consider what “achievement” should look like. There are a number of well-regarded math educators and experts that don’t believe that racing to get to Calc BC (which I also did) is the most beneficial path for any student. I would encourage you to think about what value you got out of taking Calc BC in high school, and whether getting to a high level of math is a worthy goal in and of itself.

        I encourage you to read this post by Henri Picciotto, a well-regarded veteran math teacher: http://blog.mathedpage.org/2014/04/hyper-acceleration.html

        • Ladybeee

          My family just went through the college admissions process and have talked to many application readers.

          Every college admissions officer I have talked to says that BC looks better and is often needed for people applying for STEM majors.

          This is especially true for highly selective colleges such as Cal, UCLA, and other like institutions.

          • Katie Waddle

            In contrast, my alma mater the University of Chicago (a highly selective institution), offers at most one to two quarters credit for Calc BC, and only in combination with their own placement exam.

            Colleges look at whether courses are offered at your school when considering your courseload. I have no doubt that some calculus (of any kind) combined with participation in after school science, math, or engineering clubs, a demonstrated interest in STEM through science fairs, high course grades, and a recommendation from a science or math teacher would be more than sufficient.

          • Kheart

            They all said it depends…because we live in the Bay Area, applications are held to a higher standard than say those from Utah.

            The Bay Area is a very competitive. While they do look at each individual school and what they offer, they all said they were more willing to take more people from schools that offer more. Take for example the Lynbrook or Monta Vista. They beat all SFUSD schools for UC acceptances but are very academic focused and put loads of money into programs such as research.

        • Marisol Gonzalez

          Takinc Calc BC in high school allowed me to skip Calculus 16 A and B at UC Davis, which were prerequisites for many of the courses I needed to complete my wildlife biology major. I did end up taking Calc 16 C, though I was not required to. (There was also a Calc 17 series for chemistry majors, and another Calc series for math majors). This helped me so much. I could have graduated in four years if I wanted to, but I stayed extra for the love of learning, while most people in my major graduated in five, and not always by choice.

          Henri Picciotto’s hyper acceleration seems to be referring to an even more accelerated pace of math than is being discuss, as he (a) mentions a 10th grader in calc BC, whereas most of the parent and student advocates seem to want that as an option for 12th graders, and (b) he talks about people dismissing geometry, which frankly, I agree is a mistake, and I am pretty sure not everyone who wants Algebra 1 to be an option in middle school is advocating for the abolishment of geometry.

          • Katie Waddle

            Sounds like you had a great time in college. I guess I just question whether your life would really be that different if you weren’t able to skip out of two quarters of a math class.

            In my experience as a math teacher of both severely struggling and extremely accelerated students, this is a really good plan and I’m going to end my comments on this thread here. Got work to do, school’s starting in a short 2.5 weeks!

          • Marisol Gonzalez

            I think the difference between graduating in four vs five years is staggering for those in the middle class who did not receive as much financial aid as I did.

            And ok, have a good school year! 😀 I’m excited for it to begin, as well, since I also work in schools.

    • Eggo

      “That’s racist!” is your hammer, and now every problem looks like a nail…

    • lll

      Kids who have advanced beyond the group in their learning due to parents that can teach them in their spare time absolutely deserve special separate classes away from the other students who haven’t advanced as far because their parents don’t have that luxury.

      The determinative factor is the kid’s level of comprehension. How the kid got there is irrelevant.

  • Soho

    This sounds like a great way to push the local schools into a death spiral of mediocrity. Every parent with a halfway competent child will move to the private schools.

    • Soho

      To be more specific: this is really unfair to poor families. Wealthier families will leave the system in droves and poor students who might have had a shot at upward mobility will face yet another for getting into college.

  • Adam Lee

    When I was in middle school I began to lose interest in school because it was too easy – I didn’t need to study, or read (or even use really) the text books, and this shaped my approach to school for many years to come. It made me a poor student who did not learn how to study, and I suffered for it later, eventually learning good study habits in my mid-late 20s in college.

    The real issue which needs to be acknowledged is that people grow and mature at different rates, especially during the ages they would be in middle school. Some people struggle with school, and some really get it quickly. What’s most important during this time frame in a person’s life isn’t ‘which math class they CAN do (with the underlying implication that this has to do with intelligence/IQ/potential’, but rather building the skills which can make them successful in school and/or in life. For that reason, our middle schools (and all schools) need to provide enough variety so that all people can be challenged, yet also some less advanced options so that those who have a harder time with certain subjects can get by; but at every level the student should have a chance to build learning skills.

    If we design our infrastructure to accommodate the least common denominator with a ‘one size fits most’ mentality, we lose so much, and there are unintended and unanticipated consequences. We also have to understand that ‘math proficiency’ doesn’t equal ‘smart’, and that we’re doing future generations a disservice if we try to use it as a benchmark, or if we use words like ‘smart’ or ‘dumb’ about people (or words like ‘kids’ referring to young adults). In reading the article, I was affected to read, “I want my kids to do as well as possible”, by Van Zandt, because I feel like my own dad was impatient with me on the subject of math, and I don’t think a dad (or mom – any parental figure) should have such a specific expectation of what his son or daughter will do in life. Simply put, it’s an ignorant statement implying that ‘doing well’ is related to learning math. It isn’t. I understand the sentiment though, and what I believe he means is different from what I’m saying (though I think I see where he’s coming from, I think), and what I’m saying is that if you don’t challenge people who are up for the challenge during those crucial years during which they’re learning about life and developing habits and coping skills, they won’t develop the habits and coping skills which would be most beneficial for themselves or society. If we don’t challenge the next generation, how can we expect them to take on the challenges of the real world?

    • Akhibrass

      I would argue that we if DON”T accommodate the “least common denominator” than we would lose much, much more. It’s like choosing to ignoring the busted tire and hoping your car will still get you home. Public schools are obligated to help ALL students , not just the so-called “gifted”.

  • Jame

    This is dumb. I don’t think all kids should take Algebra in middle school. But some kids should. And it will hamper them when it comes time to get to the advanced coursework. They won’t be able to fit it into 4 years of college, and will be behind their peers in college.

    I took algebra in 8th grade and it was my best class. I didn’t become an engineer, but I did well at college level math too. Math was my best subject throughout high school.

    I also had a neighbor who was struggling with math and did not pass pre-algebra till his junior year of high school.

    I also went to a school where in aims to make things more “fair” they eliminated leveling, and had all of the “gifted” kids take an extracurricular honors class with special projects. What really happened was I was bored in the core classes, I had teachers that taught to the bottom meaning I learned little in those core classes, and had to play catchup when I go to AP since some of my classes were so substandard. I also had to double up on some science classes just to make time for the higher level ones my senior year.

    I turned out fine, and went to a good college, but I could have learned much more if my high school classes were structured differently.

  • Shira Helft

    I am a high school math teacher at a public charter school in San Francisco that has elected to have all 9th graders take Algebra 1, even though it is not mandated by the city. My personal background is that I took many advanced math classes both in high school and during my undergraduate studies at Yale, and have been somewhat active in the math competition and research circuits.

    There are a couple of things that I want to highlight from the conversations that I’ve read so far.

    1) Many of my students (even those who took Algebra 1 in 8th grade and not repeated in 9th) have said that they have taken “Algebra” many times. I think this is because there are many courses with the “Algebra” name, that all look and feel slightly different, from solving single variable equations in 6th-7th “Algebra Concepts” to understanding different representations of quadratics. The Common Core representation of Algebra 1 is not only more in-depth, but also covers more sophisticated topics than did the previous instantiations of these classes.

    2) As far as I know (and certainly at my school), the end state for a student excited about math is the same – AP Calculus in their senior year. All schools that I know of have created a plan for students to ensure that those students who want to will take calculus before they leave high school.

    3) The New York Times recently ran a story on one of the most famous mathematicians alive, Terence Tao. I think one of the quotes from the article is pertinent to the conversation around how many teachers are thinking about shifting their practice with the new standards:

    “But it turned out that the work of real mathematicians bears little resemblance to the manipulations and memorization of the math student. Even those who experience great success through their college years may turn out not to have what it takes. The ancient art of mathematics, Tao has discovered, does not reward speed so much as patience, cunning and, perhaps most surprising of all, the sort of gift for collaboration and improvisation that characterizes the best jazz musicians.”

    Thank you for reading.

  • Yorick Hawk-Zucker

    Wow. This is unbelievably derptastic. I took Algebra 1 in 5th grade and was fine. It’s definitely not too hard for most 8th graders. SF loves bringing everyone down to the lowest common denominator. Families are already leaving SF in droves to avoid the mandatory mediocrity and inane policies that SFUSD imposes.

  • Lisa Wilberg

    I think there may be a bit of confusion about the nature of a Common Core Math 8 class. CCM8 is not comparable to the pre-algebra classes than many adults (myself included) remember taking prior to Algebra 1. The focus is not on just being able to “do” a problem, but rather on truly understanding the concepts, being able to explain them clearly, and then applying them to various scenarios. I took Algebra 1 as an 8th grader, but I actually think that taking CCM8 (at least how it is designed and taught at the school in which I now teach 8th grade ELA) would have been much more challenging and thought-provoking. Plus, as I believed the article mentioned, there should be differentiation within any class. There can be different homework and project options that students can choose based on their ability levels. Having witnessed the transition to Common Core math for both students and teachers, I think that San Francisco Unified is making the right decision.

    Regarding the complaints some have about the “explain” portions of the Common Core math problems, I cannot emphasize enough how important this is! In teaching English at the middle and high school levels over the past ten years, I have been shocked by how many students are unable to transfer skills from their math classes into other areas. For example, the large majority of my students do not understand the relationship between fractions and percents. When faced with situations involving these concepts (from calculating the grade on a test to figuring out the price of an item on sale), many students truly do not know what to do. It is clear to me that simply teaching steps and algorithms in math classes is it working. Students must understand the broader concepts, and they must demonstrate their understanding by explaining.

    I know there is a temptation for adults to say, “Well, I learned the old way, and I turned out just fine.” And that may be true. But the trouble is that modern students weren’t turning out just fine. They were falling behind. I believe that Common Core (if implemented well) can help begin to change that.

    • Highschoolstudent

      I think there is a difference between the Common Core Debate and the Algebra in 8th grade debate.

      In other words: you do not have to be pro/anti CC to be for/against 8th grade algebra.

      You are right that CC emphasizes explaining and knowing deep concepts. However, that does not mean kids cannot take algebra in middle schools.

      The CC standards for California allow for CC Algebra to be taught in 8th grade and every district in the Bay and LA USD has some option for it. The kids in CC Algebra 1 classes in middle school are expected to know the material on a deep level just as much as those students taking her class in high school.

      While I am all for differentiation, I’m not quite convinced SFUSD is doing a good job. Every study cited by SFUSD stated that differentiation works in class sizes of about 20 kids. SFUSD has only decided to lower class sizes in 8th grade. High school classes are often packed with 30-35 students.

  • OneSF

    I spent all my pre-college years going to SFUSD schools. I went to Hoover Middle Schoo. I thought I was pretty good at math until around 7th grade when I started to struggle a bit. Despite my struggles, I still tested into a special Algebra I class filled with some of the smartest kids in the 8th grade. I had an even harder time learning Algebra and I probably could’ve used another year of some sort of pre-algebra class. On the other hand, there were some people in my class that definitely excelled in math and deserved to be in that class. Then I moved onto Lowell High with at least a dozen of my Algebra I classmates. I retook Algebra I in 9th grade, and then I struggled through the rest of my math classes until I graduated. Some of my Algebra I classmates are now attending and about to graduate from some pretty good universities, such as Harvard, Stanford, UC Berkeley, etc. Could they have still gotten into those schools if they had to deal with this 9th grade Algebra I BS? Who knows. But I’m pretty sure holding them back wouldn’t have benefited them at all.

  • msc

    Has the entire sequence of high school math changed? It used to be Algebra, then Geometry, then Algebra II/Trigonometry, then precalculus, then calculus. Not starting algebra till 9th grade would mean no one would get to calculus in high school, which nearly eliminates any possibility of keeping up with other college freshmen if trying to enter any STEM major. I started Algebra in 7th grade along with 10 percent of my 7th grade class. Over the years, a higher and higher percentage of kids started algebra earlier. Some started in 6th grade. Or started in 7th grade and took geometry over the summer then entered algebra II in 8th grade, finished AP calculus by 10th grade. My sister did that. She was not “rushed.” She majored in math in college. Maybe the pendulum swung over too far and too many parents and teachers felt pressured to pressure their kids into algebra earlier when the kids weren’t ready. But it doesn’t mean they are ALL not ready. Does this mean that any kids who have the potential to do algebra earlier will be forced to either pay $$$$$ for private school or move out of San Francisco?

  • Nicholas Chan

    Thanks, everyone, for your thoughts. It’s been interesting to read through comments and see what people are thinking about how we can best support all our students.

    I teach high school math in San Francisco Unified and here are a few things I’m noticing and wondering:

    1. Smart versus not smart – calculations versus ideas: I notice many people using the words “smart” and “super smart” in this article and in comments. I wonder what this means. Our society privileges students who get correct answers quickly. That tends to be students who understand procedures and calculations but not the concepts and the reasons why. As math gets more abstract, understanding concepts and being able to explain them is a necessary part of math. I notice that a lot of my students who can calculate quickly struggle when they start to deal with variables and functions. We need to push for more conceptual understanding, which I believe the changes to SFUSD’s curriculum does.

    2. Smart versus not smart – access: The way this article (and some comments) talk about “smart” excludes many students. Students who get answers quickly are smart but there are many other ways to be smart – showing how to get an answer in many different ways, making connections between many representations, explaining their work to others. We need to honor all these smart ways of thinking and, accordingly, make sure that all students have access and success in challenging math courses, not just the quickest.

    I’d also argue that the way we talk about our students reflects the way we treat them – if only some students are “smart” or “super smart” (what does that mean, anyway?), what does that say about how we treat and support all our students, especially our historically underserved students?

    3. Challenge and Compression: This article and many commenters argue that students are not challenged early on. By moving some Algebra 1 content to 8th grade and some Algebra 2 content to Algebra 1, students are being challenged. Course titles are not the same as content. By allowing students both more time and more exposure to challenging material early on (and by honoring and pushing for more ways to be smart outside of procedural fluency), students should be ready for challenging math later on. Students also have an option to gain back the year “lost” (though I’d argue a year of math is not a year lost) through the 11th grade Algebra 2/Pre-Calculus compression course, when they’ve had a few years of challenging math.

    4. Patience: Many of you have shown patience in your comments. Are Math 8 and the new Algebra 1 going to be perfect as they are now? Absolutely not. It will take some time to refine the courses and figure out what’s working and what’s not. It takes time, patience and hard work to fix a broken system that is clearly not serving all students.

    Thanks again for your thoughts. I’m signing off for now. Please use the energy shown here to support all of students in San Francisco Unified. Please continue this dialogue with teachers and administrators.

    Thank you.

    • John

      Hi Mr. Chan

      I enjoyed reading your comments. I agree that CCSS should/is emphasizing concepts at a deep level. From a students point of view there are a few concerns:

      1. Every other USD in the bay and LAUSD have an algebra option for middle school. Why should students in these predominantly rich sub urban USDs have an opportunity to learn math concepts earlier and therefore have opportunity to take advanced science classes earlier. Where is the equity in that. Minority students in SFUSD already underperform compared to our counter parts in other Ca USDs.

      2. The algebra2/precal compression hasn’t had much success in the Distrct. Teachers and parents have told me that at the one HS that has it, Washington, 1/3 of the students end up repeating precal and another 1/3 head to AB calc. No one goes to BC calc…

      3. You need Precal to do the SAT Math II test which is need to apply to highly selective STEM programs.

      4. All private schools teach Algebra 1 and sometimes Geometry. Again where is the equity?

      Thanks for your perspective,

      John W (HS student)

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