What about algebra I in eighth grade?

One of my favorite websites is the Silicon Valley Education Foundation (SVEF) Thoughts on Public Education (TOP-Ed), run by their journalist-in-residence, John Festerwald.    A recent article from John, No more dodging Algebra dilemma, focused on how California’s algebra 1 standards, as mixed with the recently adopted Common Core standards, would impact eighth grade education.  As always, his articles are chock full of the latest facts and perspectives on the topic, and commenters willingly expound on their views related to the article.  I infrequently comment, when I find a moment in between planning and grading.  My (slightly edited) comments to the above article follow.

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I teach algebra 1 and AP Calculus AB leveraging the knowledge I acquired while obtaining a bachelors in electrical engineering, an MBA in finance, and most recently, an MAEd, from a credential program committed to social justice, as well as my quarter-century experience working in high-tech.

Fortunately, I recently discovered my true passion in life: teaching students so they might make the most of themselves in life as capable, competent citizens, full of self-esteem and self-confidence tempered by some humility and empathy for those who have less, and eager to serve their nation and this world in their life, whatever career path they choose.  While the subject I teach is mathematics, it is simply the conduit for my wish to impart to students, of all socioeconomic backgrounds: knowledge, the ability to think independently and in groups, the confidence to make mistakes and fail while pulling oneself up so as to never give up entirely, the wisdom to seek help, and the desire to do your best.  I especially wish to help underserved students by instilling in them the belief that they can overcome self-limiting thoughts and behaviors.

Having presented my bona fides, and expressed my intense hope to help all students, I must say that placing students deficient in prerequisite skills into algebra 1 (or any subject for that matter), whether in middle school or high school, creates a lose-lose-lose situation for the student, teacher, and society.  Much of what I read on this site about student achievement, teacher effectiveness, closing the achievement gap, and etcetera seems to place undue emphasis on standards as if they are the primary reason for the success or failure of our educational system.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  They are a necessary but not sufficient condition for success.  Many other factors impact the true success of this complex system spanning in-school and out-of-school environments including but not limited to robust standards, flexible curricula and pedagogy, dynamic and committed teachers, effective operational support systems, involved and supportive parents, and most importantly, students that recognize the significance and importance of learning so they serve as active, engaged participants with parents, teachers, administrators, and all others dedicated to providing world-class education to our citizens.

Specifically, for algebra 1, the breadth of its twenty-five plus standards limits the opportunity to investigate all but a few in any reasonable depth, or at a pace reflective of the diverse range in student learning.  Hopefully, with the continued advance of adaptive, online learning software, students who wish to learn may one day have the time and support they need to succeed, as opposed to expecting that through some miracle a teacher will rectify the myriad mathematical misunderstandings present in today’s algebra 1 classes.  I consider myself very knowledgeable, highly capable, and extremely dedicated to helping all students.  Yet, I realize an insurmountable task when I see one, especially when considering the entire system from end to end.  Blame it on the engineer in me.  While my heart aches to help all students overcome their challenges, it is clear that burn out is the surest outcome for the advocated approaches in today’s mainstreamed, heterogeneous classrooms where language, cognitive limitations, and other factors conspire to limit sustainable and extensible success.  Students must be matched with material that aligns with their Zone of Proximal Development (Vygotsky, 1978) for true progress.  Unfortunately, the range of ZPD within a heterogeneous classroom is daunting to say the least.  While differentiated instruction is espoused to address that issue, it is unrealistic to expect teachers within their first five, or even longer, years to master it, as there is a significant overhead associated with mass customized instruction.  Whether anyone can do so is even debatable.

The following excerpts from my blog post: VAM BAM: Our National Obsession with Measuring Teacher Effectiveness expand on these points.

As an example, requiring every student to take algebra in eighth grade to make sure they have the greatest chance of attending college, while egalitarian on its face, results in the unintended labeling of a hundred thousand or so students as failures, and if using VAM, thousands of teachers as ineffective.  The reasons so many students fail to learn algebra range from a student being unready developmentally, as recent advances in pre-frontal cortex research on cognition has revealed, to the concomitant challenges of poverty where a dearth of support resources and an overabundance of destructive environmental issues work to impede student learning.

See “Cracking the code: Why, how and when should students learn algebra?” for a summary of the pros and cons of all students learning algebra in eighth grade and “Not Ready for Algebra” for a discussion of the challenges with algebra for all.

As a first year algebra 1 teacher, I struggle with balancing the nearly unreasonable expectations placed on my students and myself alike, as embodied in content standards; federal, state, and local mandates; and the California Standards for the Teaching Profession (CSTPs).  Many of these expectations cannot be successfully fulfilled in any sustainable basis given the current structure, roles, processes, and systems in public education, as compounded by the paucity of funding as measured per student.

As I shared with an acquaintance yesterday, if industry had to operate under the same conditions, constraints, imperatives, policies, and expectations as teachers or administrators, we would not have profitable industries, much less profitable companies.  Imagine depression era unemployment and Soviet-style stores as an outcome, for no one would deliver products to market that met customer expectations whether they be price, availability, or functionality; hence, jobs would be scarce, as would capital.  Such is the state of public education today with little hope for true, mass scale improvement on the horizon.

While I employ profits and capitalism analogies above, unleashing free-market theories upon public education would be a disaster.  I say this since most education reformers believe that privatizing education is the way to go.  However, the profit motive conflicts with the educate all ethos of public education.  Anyone who says otherwise needs to spend more than a fleeting moment in public school classrooms.

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About Dave aka Mr. Math Teacher

Secondary math teacher teaching math intervention, algebra 1, honors precalculus, and AP Calculus AB. I spent 25 years in high tech in engineering, marketing, sales and business development roles in the satellite communications, GPS, semiconductor, and wireless industries. I am awed by the potential in our nation's youth and I hope to instill in them the passion to improve our world at local, state, national, and global levels.
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