College-prep for all — with easier math

Math teachers at my daughter’s old high school oppose a plan to require all students to pass college-prep classes required for admission to California universities, known as A-G courses. They say some Palo Alto High students — disproportionately black, Hispanic and disabled — can’t pass the school’s demanding Algebra II class, which requires more than the UC/CSU standard.  Water it down to the minimal level and students will end up in remedial math in college, the teachers warn.

The department chair, Radu Toma, wrote the letter (posted on, which is signed by his colleagues. He taught my daughter Geometry in ninth grade and AP Calculus in 12th grade. Her Algebra II and pre-calc teachers signed too.

The math teachers are snobs who only want to teach advanced classes, argues LaToya Baldwin Clark in the Palo Alto Weekly. Require A-G for graduation, she writes, and create an easier Algebra II class for average students who don’t have parents who can tutor them — or pay for tutoring.

By the department’s own admission, even the regular lane Algebra II class greatly exceeds the UC/CSU. In the view of Toma and his colleagues, “diluting the standards in our regular lane to basic benchmarks which might allow every student to pass Algebra II would end up hurting the district’s reputation.” The department refuses to teach an Algebra II that satisfies UC/CSU requirements that students can actually pass. And where does the Paly math department think those students who fail to complete Algebra II should go, rather than to college? They can “go on to community colleges or jobs for which district prepares them better than most districts.”

The reputation of a high school is enhanced when all students go to four-year colleges.

Last year, 85 percent of all high school graduates in the district met the UC/CSU requirements. But only 5 percent of special-ed students, 15 percent of blacks and 40 percent of Hispanic graduates were eligible for state universities.

Many of the black and Hispanic students have transferred from neighboring East Palo Alto, a low-income and working-class town, under a desegregation agreement. Many of the Palo Alto students are the children of very well-educated parents who work in high-tech or at Stanford. There’s no question that Palo Alto’s two high schools are designed to prepare students for very competitive colleges and universities.

The local community college, Foothill, is one of the best in the state. But graduation rates are low for community college students. Starting at a four-year university — San Jose State is the likely choice — would raise the odds of earning a bachelor’s degree.

But we’re still talking about long odds. Most remedial math students never earn a degree.

If a basic Algebra II is created, it should be aligned with college placement tests, so students know if they’re on track to take college-level or remedial classes. If the high school maintains high standards in its regular-lane Algebra II, then teachers need a strategy to help math-challenged students pass.

There’s another option: Work with Foothill to create a career-prep track. Community colleges offer programs that qualify students for a “middle-skill” job in two years or less. Some require advanced algebra, but others do not. But this would be seen as setting low expectations for other people’s kids. It wouldn’t fly.


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  1. This looks like more politically correct B.S. (IMO), as watering down content isn’t going to help students who want to engage in skilled trades, vocations, or STEM careers.

    In reviewing the Dummies math book series (which I have on PDF), the only reason many students are having trouble mastering higher math (algebra or greater) is usually a piss-poor grasping of fundamentals in school (starting in grades K-5, and by definition, most of the parents having a phobia or aversion to math itself).

    In reading the ‘dummies’ series recently, many of the same concepts I learned in grade school and high school still apply, but like anything else, you have to actually put the time into really learning the subject in question.

    Perhaps a class of ‘applied algebra’ might suit the students better (not all students learn the same way, and if they can be show how it applies in the actual world, they might actually retain a better understanding of math).

  2. It’s silly to require Algebra 2 to graduate high school. Heck, the state requires Algebra 1 and plenty struggle to meet that. Expecting *everyone* to be college-ready is part of the problem we have in education, and is why we’ve gotten rid of home ec and shop and all sorts of other practical classes. Say it with me, class: COLLEGE ISN’T FOR EVERYONE.

    The math teachers don’t sound to me like snobs. They sound to me like people who have enough respect for their academic discipline that they don’t want to water it down. We should applaud them, not denigrate them.

    • South Dakota is now requiring not only Algebra II, but chem and physics. Idiotic, especially considering the large number of very small schools in the state. As of about 10 years ago, there were about a hundred schools in the state that had 60 students or less. Those schools won’t be able to offer two classes, the real one and the “lite” one, so the kids wanting the real thing will be hurt. The bigger schools will offer two versions.

  3. I see no reason the high school can’t create an Algebra II class which meets California state A-G requirements. That’s a separate matter from requiring it for graduation.

    Realistically, for the 48 non-Sped students who have not passed Paly’s Algebra II class by graduation, their best chance for a college degree would be at a University of California college. Refusing to allow them the chance to meet the A-G requirements does not seem fair. I’m not clear on why offering marginal students a chance to attend state colleges would harm the district’s reputation.

    If those students are all from out of the district, it does look very much like the high school is protecting “our” students at the expense of the out-of-district students.

    • California’s state university system has two levels, both of which require the A-G courses. The University of California is designed for the top 12 percent of students as measured by grades and test scores. (The regents recently made admissions more subjective, but basically UC is for A students.) The California State University system is designed for the top third of graduates. Although nearly all first-year CSU students had a B average or better in high school, half require remedial math.

      The only state colleges are community colleges, which are open to all.

  4. momof4,

    When I went to high school, in order to take chemistry I (which college prep students usually took, along with biology I or physics), you had to have a minimum grade of “C” (back in the late 70′s) in Algebra I or be taking Algebra II alongside of chemistry or physics.

    Not to mention, I can’t even imagine what a high school chemistry class teaches given that when I took it, the number of students in the class was approximately 28-32 students (usually 7-8 4 person groups for experiments, etc).

    I can recall a great deal of math and labs in chemistry and physics, but a chemistry or physics class with 50 students sounds just insane as they won’t be able to do the required labs in an hour or so, and when I attended college, our lab time was usually a minimum of 2-3 hours per week, required).