X + Y = ?

Starting this year, California students are supposed to pass algebra to earn a high school diploma, but many districts are seeking waivers. That includes districts that made algebra a graduation requirement years ago, yet never really enforced it.

More than one-third of the state’s high school districts already have applied for — and probably will receive — waivers. With the number still growing, the algebra condition attached to the 2004 diploma essentially becomes meaningless.

This comes less than a year after the state relented on a controversial requirement that this year’s seniors also pass an exit exam. That expectation was handed to the Class of 2006.

“It’s taking folks off the hook,” complained Russlynn Ali, head of the Education Trust-West, a non-profit Oakland group that advocates on behalf of low-income and minority students.

Districts claim new immigrants and special education students are the ones unable to pass algebra by the end of 12th grade. Special ed is a separate issue: Perhaps some students aren’t capable of completing normal requirements for a diploma and should go for a “certificate of completion” instead. But students can learn math long before they’re proficient in English. And some of those frequent flunkers aren’t immigrants or disabled. They’re slackers.

The requirement has forced schools to get more serious about teaching algebra. For one thing, they get better teachers.

At Milpitas High School, Lam Le — who has taught mathematics at the college level — teaches two classes of beginning algebra.

Le inherited several students who were failing but says she has only one F student now.

In her class, students actually start work before the bell rings. And they don’t start to pack up until it rings again. “Math takes discipline, and clear direction,” Le said.

Le flits from group to group like a hummingbird, challenging them to solve the problems. She conducts most of the class in English but also can help students by clarifying in Spanish or Vietnamese.

Alejandra Centeno lived in Nicaragua until she was 13. When she moved to Milpitas two years ago, she spoke no English. Not surprisingly, she failed algebra.

But her English is much better, and she’s getting an A in algebra. “I like how Mrs. Le teaches,” she said. “She takes time to explain it.”

Several students in her class said they support the requirement linking algebra to graduation, despite their struggles. “If you don’t know how to do math, you can’t get a good job,” said Jouit Soliano, who came from the Philippines last year.

California’s standards call for students to learn algebra in eighth grade. Yet the graduation exam was postponed because so many students were flunking the math portion of the test, which required only a 55 percent on a multiple-choice exam with four choices per question. Only the hardest questions required high school math skills.

About Joanne


  1. What’s the point in having standards if you don’t enforce them? I would love to see more states force students to pass an algebra exam in order to get a diploma. Algebra teaches use to use reason and to devolop a framework in order to identify unknowns. Skills such as these are not only vital in work, but in life.

  2. I note with unhappiness, but not surprise, that one of the districts trying to evade the requirement is Campbell Union. Both my sons graduated from this district, and it was a four-year battle each time for them to be permitted to take the math and science courses that they were seeking; the usual argument from district counselors was that ‘they don’t need it to graduate.’

    We found an incredible level of pressure to steer students away from the challenging, hard-science areas, and, even more discouraging, some of the classes we had to fight to get them turned out to be hugely disappointing.

    When we look for the reason our colleges have to waste resources teaching remedial math, the finger points directly at our high school’s unwillingness to teach the kind of material that was common fifty years ago.

  3. jeff wright says:

    A person I know very well in the medical profession here in San Jose related these encounters with teachers yesterday. Teacher number one teaches third grade. According to this individual, third-graders today are far superior in math skills to those 30 years ago. Teacher number two teaches high school math. According to this individual, high school kids’ difficulties with math are attributable to their not being “emotionally ready.”

    I erupted with a huge guffaw at these stories, pointing out that my teaching experiences did not support such stories, and that further, more than 50% of entering Cal State freshmen have to take remedical math courses. This earned me a serious dirty look.

    After she reads the Mercury News article, I’m going to suggest that she ask the teachers who’s going to do the work to keep this country viable when we’re gone.

    Millions of our forebears worked hard, fought and died to make this country free and great. Were all of the sacrifices made so that we could watch the nation crumble around us at the beginning of the 21st century? Shame, shame.

  4. Jeff…I think a fundamental problem is that a large number of educational administrators (and even, sadly, some teachers) believe that what has been created in the US, and throughout world civilization, is of no value whatsoever, and not worth being protected and enhanced.

    I know it’s a strong statement, but I don’t know how else their behavior can be interpreted.

  5. Mike McKeown says:

    Some of the difficulty that non-native English speakers are having comes from the fact that math class has been switched into English class, what with the emphasis on writing about how to get the answer and how one feels about math.

    Congratulations to the fuzzies for eliminating the one thing recent immigrants did really well.

  6. “…The conditions are not strict, and it’s expected most or all applications will be approved. …”

    Is it a blanket waiver for all students in a district or just for a few? What do they replace the algebra requirement with? I think I know the answer.

    Ultimately, common standards that apply to all students are meaningless. They will be watered down for all because of the special cases. High schools should have different standards and tests for the different tracks. If they stick with common exams for all, then waivers should be done on an individual student basis only.

    However, the goal of education should not be to provide slightly better, but equal educational mediocrity for all, but to provide the best educational opportunities for each individual.
    These lowest common denominator tests do nothing to ensure that schools provide a top quality and rigorous education for those willing to work.

  7. Jeff,

    You sound like a bright guy. I’m not being facetious – why don’t you go back to the classroom and teach those rigorous math and science standards yourself?

    You said you’ve taught before. What’s holding you back?

  8. Bill Leonard says:

    Today I read the story in my local paper, the San Jose (CA) Mercury News, that Joanne cites. The problem posed by teacher Lam Le is not particularly difficult; it is a first-year algebra problem, and I managed to solve it without benefit of pencil or paper. Please note: I am a liberal arts grad, and I encountered Algebra One 46 years ago. I don’t use math all that much (like, almost never), but the background is useful when one needs it.

    My wife looked at the problem and chuckled. She also is a liberal arts grad, but as a senior person at her firm, helps (i.e., does almost all the technical work) when client companies put together voluntary short-term, long-term and workers’ comp disability insurance plans. She uses algebra all the time in calculating certain technical elements of each plan.

    It is inconceiveable to us that high school kids who aspire to college educations wouldn’t have been exposed to and be able to solve relatively simple algebra and geometry problems — even if they plan non-technical careers.

    Our kids went thru the usual grousing about high school math, and neither earned distingusihed grades in high school math. Funny thing: one kid majored in political science, and is amazed at how much math he had to refresh on in his current MBA program. The other got very interested in certain elements of mathmatics once he discovered his college major and intellectual love, economics.

  9. Sue Bob says:

    Regarding the slacker comment, I have no doubt that many of these students are slackers. That said, I NEVER became proficient in algebra. In eight grade, which was the grade preceding algebra back in the 1960’s, I had a teacher who had a “progressive” idea about how to teach math which consisted of the kids teaching themselves at their desks while he walked around the class, pontificating in answer to individual questions (the noise was so loud from the other kids, I could never hear his answer when I asked for help. Never a math whiz, I had a great math experience the year before with a tough teacher who drilled us like a Marine Sergeant. I did so great with her that I was, unfortunately, moved to an accelerated class–headed by the “progessive” I just referred to. After that experience, I could never catch up, and algebra was a recurring (as in repeating it) disaster. I missed a fundamental building block and never recovered. I don’t think that I was a slacker–I did slide through math (barely) and graduated college and then law school so I know I had discipline. But, that one year in eighth grade profoundly changed the course of my life in the area of math. Even now, when I have to do math, my brain goes fuzzy.

  10. jeff wright says:

    SuzieQ: Thanks for the kind words. In truth, I’m a quitter. I just couldn’t stand it. Rude, uncaring, and downright stupid kids. I couldn’t reach ’em. And few I knew could.

    Fortunately, I have options. I’m self-employed and keep pretty busy. What I do can’t be out-sourced. I have a spouse in a shortage profession, which also can’t be out-sourced, as well as military retirement pay. We’re now in the process of selling the house we’ve had in San Jose for the past 14 years. We will rent for a couple of years and then depart this, my state of birth—which bears no resemblance to the California in which I grew up—for another state, maybe Florida.

    We are frankly bummed out on California, with the schools and what we see of the future—as exemplified by the current crop of young people—playing a major role. In the past month, we’ve seen news reports of two local major school districts going belly-up, with one of them actually asking for a state take-over. This district also has a criminal investigation ongoing to find out just what happened to the money. Yes, a criminal investigation, aimed at the guardians of our children and the public purse. IMO, California is doomed.

    I won’t go back to the schools. They’re radioactive to me. As a retired military officer with too much time in Vietnam and other garden spots, I’m all too familiar with serving the ungrateful and the uncaring. No more.

  11. David,

    I think you may be giving “a large number of educational administrators (and even, sadly, some teachers)” too much credit.

    Yes, there is a rampant anti-Western meme out there, but how many teachers have been affected by it? Quite a few, but the proportion is probably less than in the universities. And I can’t imagine a lot of admistrators catching that meme either. Perhaps I am wrong.

    The way I see it, it’s not that they believe our civilization “is of no value whatsoever.” They DO value it – at least in the basest sense. It allows them to live comfortably. None of them want to move into caves and return to a hunter-gatherer existence. Nobody does.

    Intellectuals pontificate about the evils of the Waste, er, WEST. These are not intellectuals for the most part. I don’t think a lot of them have figured out that the civilization that keeps them comfortable will fall apart if they don’t do their jobs properly. Let someone else train the kids; we’ll babysit instead.

    Not all “bad” educators are like that. There are some whom I can relate to. They are not necessarily evil (“heh heh, let’s corrupt the kids!”) or even stupid. We can’t all be Jaime Escalantes. Some tried, ran into what Jeff Wright encountered, and decided to hack instead of give up like Jeff did. (I feel for you, Jeff, and if I were in your shoes, I’d have done the same thing.) If one had no other options outside of teaching, and if conditions are horrible, hacking makes a sick kind of sense. It’s a short-term form of survival. It keeps one alive, and it gives the kids the sacred pieces of papers. But in the long term it leads to disaster.

    That’s what’s lacking in some educators – a sense of the big picture. Even anti-West fanatics have to think big to hate “the West.” Small thinkers are only concerned about the here and now – how can we get through the day?

    And some big thinkers know disaster is up ahead, but feel powerless against it, so they concentrate on day-to-day survival. I know how that feels. It’s wrong, it’s easy to condemn – and it’s hard to stop.

  12. Sue Bob, I feel for you. You should know that in my teaching and tutoring experience I’ve found that if you ask students who “go fuzzy” when asked to do math why that is, they inevitably tell the same story: “It wasn’t always like that, but one year I had this teacher…” and after they get that out in the open and consciously work around it, they do much better. I had one student go from a D to an A that way, working through her psychological math issues while she made up learning the material she’d missed because of them. Thankfully, she was an Elementary Ed major.

  13. Well, what goes on with math instruction in schools is downright scary (if you want proof, try getting correct change in a drive through these days). I’ll give the United States about another 46 years of life (2050) before it crumbles into total chaos due to a completely uneducated populace.

  14. Slightly off-topic: I have an adult friend who is discovering that all the math she avoided in school is coming back to haunt her. I think she can relate to your students, Wacky Hermit, who fuzzed out math at an early age and never recovered. Can anyone recommend a book or workbook? I’m thinking pre-algebra level.

  15. jeff wright says:

    Thanks for the support, Amritas. I especially like your treatment of “hackers.” If I hadn’t had options, I might have become one of them. One must eat, after all. What was most disconcerting to me was to see just what it was like on the “inside” of what should be—and traditionally has been— an honored profession. In the grand scheme of things, there is nothing nobler than a good teacher. I admire those who stay, those who should stay that is, immensely.

    Now we have a situation where something like 50% of new teachers—the vast majority of whom are youngsters fresh out of college—leave the profession within five years. Wake-up call. Red flag. Orange alert. Call it what you will, but when the future of a profession leaves in droves, that’s a profession in trouble. Which means the whole damned country is in trouble. What’s especially troubling is that the state of the education establishment gives our latter-day buccaneer CEOs of stateless corporations the perfect cover to keep shipping jobs offshore. They’re not greedy. Oh, no. American kids just can’t cut it.

    I don’t want to be associated with failure of such magnitude.

  16. oliviacw says:

    Anne –

    I originally attended a Montessori school, and as a result I’m a big fan of hands-on activities (“math manipulatives”). The Cuisenaire rods (http://www.etacuisenaire.com/ts.catalog/department?deptId=TSCUISENAIRERODS)
    are a great way for people to get a visceral sense of how to interpret numbers and basic mathematical calculations. The “mathematics made meaningful” set (on the second page of the link above) covers addition through division, and there are other texts that introduce basic solid geometry and fractions.

  17. Thanks for the tip, Oliviacw. I got on the site and will check out the Cuisenaire sets.