Californians question new math standards

Proposed common core standards are too weak for California schools, some critics say. From the San Jose Mercury News.

Rather than following in step with other states, critics say, California should be looking to keep up with India, Singapore and Europe. Compared with their peers in Europe and Asia, U.S. students are two to 2½ years behind in math; California students are 1½ years behind, said James Milgram, professor emeritus of math at Stanford University, who will help determine the new national standards.

Milgram doesn’t think California should adopt what he says will be weaker standards. Neither does Ze’ev Wurman, a Palo Alto high-tech executive and former adviser to the U.S. Department of Education.

“Essentially we are giving up on the hope of teaching algebra in the eighth grade,” he said. He charges the proposed standards set the bar too low for college readiness.

However, Professor Hung-Hsi Wu of UC Berkeley, who worked on the proposed standards, believes California’s algebra-by-eighth-grade requirement — often ignored by schools — has not improved achievement. The new proposal “spells out a more reasonable way to approach mathematics education,” he said.

California’s math standards are highly rated, but many students don’t come close to reaching them.

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  1. It’s amazing how many times standards have been LOOKED at over since the report in 1982 “A Nation at Risk” was released. I guess the politicos in charge and the people who always SEEM to get appointed to the same task force don’t bother to review any of previous studies which have been done in the past to see if they’ll actually produce something different this time.

    The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting a different result each time (sounds like every education task force or committee I’ve seen since graduating from high school).


  2. Michael E. Lopez says:

    Algebra in 8th grade was reserved for honors students when I was in school.

    If you take Algebra in 8th grade, then what’s left? Geometry, Alg II, Pre-Calc, and Calc, right?

    Algebra and Geometry are really as far as you need to go in mathematics for most jobs. Maybe sprinkle in some basic Combinatorics. But it’s vanity on the part of the educated to think that matrices or limits are actually important to most the of population.

    What’s the rush to get essential math done by 9th grade?

  3. Charles R. Williams says:

    One advantage to world-class standards is that you can see where you stand. Unfortunately, there was never a buy-in on the part of parents and educators to the California math standards. Until parents and educators are willing to make the sacrifices (and these sacrifices are not financial), we will not see real progress. Perhaps the best that we can hope for is changes in the system to enable our best students to compete globally if they are sufficiently motivated.

    World-class standards means algebra in the 7th grade leading to multivariate calculus in the 12th grade for students headed to careers in engineering and the physical sciences. It means algebra in the 8th grade for students who will pursue a university degree.

  4. the answer to being two years behind isn’t to shove all the standards back two years. . .making the 8th grade standards the new 6th grade standards. and even if you did do that, you’d have to roll it out one year at a time, starting with the next years’ kindergardners or you’d have whole groups of students missing standards; the 8th graders moving to 9th would miss out on the 9th and 10th standards b/c they are now the 7th and 8th standards.

    anyway, if students are so able to understand all these more abstract mathematical concepts in 6th and 7th grades, why is there still so much research being taught in ed schools that students can’t think abstractly until 11 or 12, and that is just a start. according to my ed psych book (which i’m not digging out to cite right now, but is at least 6 years old anyway) people do not have a firm grasp on thinking abstractly until around 20. i’m just curious if it’s only american who can’t think abstractly til 20 or if it’s people everywhere. and are our students incapable of thinking abstractly b/c we fail to teach them to do so at younger ages? or b/c they psychologically can’t? nurture or nature?

  5. i guess i shouldn’t say *can’t* think abstractly, but rather do not. although, i think piaget theorized that children really cannot manipulate abstract concepts.

  6. Cynical says:

    I don’t understand what the issue is. I took algebra in the 7th grade and AP Calc in the 11th (got a 5 on the BC).

    If there is an abstract-thinking test which can be used to gauge readiness for algebra, using it to keep students from sinking and getting frustrated with material they’re unable to grasp is an excellent idea. On the other hand, if the complexion of those who fail is substantially different from those who pass, the politics of race immediately rears its ugly head.

  7. The problem is fuzzy math – Everyday Math, Trailblazers, CMP etc. – in ES-MS that do not teach each step to mastery before advancing (as Singapore Math does), combined with use of calculators a decade too early. The “not developmentally ready”, “unable to think abstractly”, “not mature enough” is (in the absence IQ limitations) a cop-out for “hasn’t been taught properly.” You can’t expect kids to succeed in algebra if they don’t know their basic math facts and algorithms, including manipulation of fractions. Too many kids with early ES math skills are being stuffed into “algebra” in 8th grade. And, of course, Cynical is right that political correctness is a big factor.

    The same issue exists in reading; balanced literacy fails too many kids, as opposed to phonics. Also, the idea that reading is a transferable, content-free skill is equally poisonous.

    The insistence on 8th-grade algebra as a magic bullet comes from data back in the 80s that found a significant CORRELATION between 8th-grade algebra and HS GPA, SAT, college success (any/all; I forget which), so the ed world immediately jumped to the conclusion that the algebra CAUSED the good outcomes. Purely ridiculous; 8th-grade algebra was an honors-only class that was taken only by the top kids. Of course they did well; 8th-grade honors algebra was a proxy variable for identifying the best students. Of course, the ed world also made the same correlation/causation error with Latin, # books in the home, AP/IB classes, debate, art/music – all of which were taken only by the best students (at the time).

  8. Mark Roulo says:

    “i’m just curious if it’s only american who can’t think abstractly til 20 or if it’s people everywhere.”

    As nearly as I can tell, the rest of the world (Japan, Singapore, Russia, Europe as a whole, …) teaches algebra in 7th grade in their normal math sequence.

    The US has traditionally taught Algebra in 9th grade.

    My guess, then, is that it is only Americans who can’t/don’t think abstractly until age 20. Which suggests that the answer is “don’t”.

    For math, the US accelerated track (Algebra in 8th grade) appears to be the rest-of-the-world remedial track 🙁

    -Mark Roulo

  9. cynical and mom, i agree with both of you. especially the part about not teaching to mastery.

    i’ll never forget how appalled i was my first year teaching when i was told not to teach for mastery, but for exposure. i was told to just expose kids to all the concepts, but not to bother making sure they mastered it. needless to say, i heartily disagree and as a result i keep my door closed and teach to mastery anyway.

  10. Why can’t CA have two standards? The state already has the whole UC/CSU a-g requirements that are supposed to be at a higher level than general ed courses. Though judging by the numbers of students who require remedial coursework, those really aren’t doing a very good job.

    Establish an “honors” standard pegged to what the top international performers are doing like what Dr. Milgram wants. Set a goal for say 20-25% of students to reach proficiency at this level and require schools to work towards that the way NCLB requires work towards getting students proficient at the regular standard.

  11. Crimson Wife: Having an honors-level standard makes good sense; one-size-fits-all does not work well, in general, and not everyone is capable of work at that level. The problem, as Cynical suggested, is that there is very likely to be a significant difference in the racial/ethnic composition of the different levels and that is politically unacceptable. Just think of the recent post about the CA city dropping the extra period for AP sciences because “there were too many Asians and whites” in those sections.

  12. A big reason I believe why there’s such a racial/ethnic disparity among honors & AP courses in high school is because many elementary schools do not have a strong curriculum. When that happens, parents have to make up for it at home. Certain groups appear to be more successful in general than others in providing that kind of academic support. Fix the curriculum and it won’t matter so much.

  13. Crimson Wife, I totally agree with you. Even the honor or accelerated math program here in CA is not rigorous enough comparing to the international standard. There comes the width over depth and parental support over school education again.
    The problem for the difficulty of moving students into algebra and geomety is not time. 7th or 8th grade for algebra is fine. The students are 12 or 13 by then. They are ready for abstract thinking by Piage. How many years do we need to teach the elementary math anyway. I agree with Momof4 that the students are not ready to learn Algebra because they have not mastered the elementary math. If the standard needs to be modified. Don’t change the time, but change the standard for elementary math, focus on the mastery of the basics, remove the algebra content, remove any notion of variables, add more word problems, add more mixed operations. Change it.

  14. Why are we rushing children through mathematics? Give children time and encourage mastery in mathematics by 12th grade. Calculus is not a necessary subject for all students. Let’s not confuse reasonable standards with “low standards.” Most people do not require calculus to succeed in life.

  15. Math Teacher says:

    “My guess, then, is that it is only Americans who can’t/don’t think abstractly until age 20. Which suggests that the answer is “don’t”.”

    I think it’s because of all the time many of us spend in front of the boob tube (and at the shopping mall)… pursuits much less taxing than math.

  16. Math Tutor says:

    Weaker standards will only weaken the academic roots. High standards clubbed with high quality delivery of education will ensure better academic results.

  17. Mark Roulo says:

    Why are we rushing children through mathematics? Give children time and encourage mastery in mathematics by 12th grade.

    I guess there are two answers.

    The first one is, “encourage mastery of what?” 12 years (or 13, if one includes kindergarten) to learn integer addition, subtraction, multiplication and division seems much too long assuming reasonable teaching (teachers and curriculum) and students. Do we really want/expect 17 year olds to still be nailing down mastery of 456×34? Fractions by 12-th grade? If European kids are ready to learn algebra after six years of schooling, why would we expect this to take twelve in the US?

    Answer two would be, even if we don’t expect the kids to be doing Calculus, learning whatever it is they should learn earlier frees up time to take non-math classes.

    Answer three (of two 🙂 ) might be that matching the rest of the developed world in math education pacing probably shouldn’t be described as “rushing.”

    -Mark Roulo

  18. My eldest daughter was learning calculus in 5th grade. She’s unusual, but the subject isn’t that hard. As to why people should learn it, another reason is, the same reason that they should take art courses and read Shakespeare and learn some philosophy and history. One of the great intellectual achievements of the 20th century was the development of quantum mechanics – it was overwhelmingly important in practical terms (almost every electronic device in use today was invented by making use of these ideas), and if you don’t at least know calculus, the ideas cannot really be explained to you, any more than a totally deaf person can have a serious understanding of music.

    People who say that you can have a good life without understanding science or math are entirely correct. But you will never understand how much of the man-made world works, and as time goes on you will understand even less of it. But perhaps the right way to think about this is two tracks: one for kids headed to vocational schools and another for kids going to college. And I think that this is actually a good idea – why should anyone go into debt 100K+ for a useless degree? But the people that can actually benefit from college should really be educated there, and that means they have to know at least something about science and math.

    But even the better vocational students need more math than they might suppose. My brother is a foreman in a fab shop, and he has had to teach himself solid trig and some basic calculus to figure out how to actually make the stuff in the blueprints he’s handed.

  19. Math Teacher says:

    “People who say that you can have a good life without understanding science or math are entirely correct. But you will never understand how much of the man-made world works, and as time goes on you will understand even less of it.”

    I would add how much of the natural world works too… I mean, the man-made world pretty much depends on the natural one, doesn’t it?


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