11/11/08

Education that Doesn't Add Up

When I was in graduate school at UCLA, we had to pass a five hour qualifying exam to move from the Master's program to the Ph.D. program.  At numerous much more prestigious east coast universities the equivalent to this exam lasted one hour.  At numerous much less prestigious mid-Western universities this exam was rumored to last ten to twelve hours.  My friends and I used to laugh at this.  We understood that the tests were about pecking orders.  They were about trying to convince people that you were as good as the Big Boys because you worked twice as hard.  

It seems to me that the California educational standards do the same thing.  Poor California, its schools having fallen to the near bottom of well-ranked public schools, has reacted like an insecure mid-Western university.  It has enacted state "standards" that are among some of the most rigorous in the nation.  Does this make the schools better?  Not really.  Does this improve education?  Not so much.  They are just about making a statement -- not educating children.

Let's talk about math.  The state recently postponed its plan to make all eighth graders pass a statewide algebra test.  No other state has such a test, just the District of Columbia, whose schools are even worse than those in California.  Moreover, research cited by the California Faculty Association states that only 30% to 40% of eighth graders are developmentally ready to deal with algebra.  So why push for it?  Because it seems rigorous.  It seems hard.  It seems like we are making progress in education because it seems like we are getting more out of students.  We aren't.  We are failing students.  We are asking things of them that they will be able to do ONE DAY, but that the vast majority of them will not be able to do in eighth grade.

What got me thinking about this?  Seventh grade pre-algebra.  It was the worst, hardest class I ever took.  And now my seventh grader is taking it, and it's the worst, hardest class she's ever taken.  She works so doggedly on her math, and she is hanging in there.  But what will be the reward for this hard work?  Eighth grade algebra A/B, which is, in fact two years of algebra squeezed into one so that ninth graders can go straight to geometry.  I love my daughter.  I think she is brilliant and wise.  But she will not be able to squeeze two years of algebra into one.  I know that.  She is a smart, smart girl, but her brain is not ready for that challenge.  It will be, in a few years.  What is the purpose of pushing it?  What is the point of forcing her and the roughly 60% to 70% of of students who will not be developmentally ready for algebra to fail?  

Educational "standards" that are not pegged to the developmental milestones of children are cruel to all of us. They are cruel to the students they leave behind and to the parents who have to pick up the pieces.  They are like broken shards of glass that everyone has to walk on except the person who dropped the vase.  

4 comments:

altadenahiker said...

Hey, I'm UCLA too, English Lit BA, but no further. I'm glad you brought this up because I think math in general would be a most facinating discipline, but it is so poorly taught. Schools bring none of the mystery to the table, the wonder of it all. And I think that's because the curriculem is all about the drudgery of numbers, and none of the poetry. For example, the theory of 9's -- how can that be, why does it work. Algebra should be taught by music majors and poets.

Susan C said...

This is crazy! A big chunk of our California kids can't even pass the math portion of the exit exam, and now they're expecting 8th graders to pass an algebra exam? It doesn't make any sense at all.

I've always had a high aptitude for math and I once trained to be a systems design consultant for AT&T, designing large, complex data communications networks for corporate clients. (Had the aptitude but not the interest.) The classes were technical and challenging, but ya' know what - I never used any math more complex than Algebra I.

So, anyway, I don't get this whole "vertical compression" rush on the algebra.

Margaret said...

I'm telling you, it's all a little dog/big bite thing. The state wants to prove its educational system is not broken by setting high standards that most kids are not cognitively prepared to master.

Cafe Observer said...

Maybe we need to do the same things in the past which resulted in such good results.

Obviously, our modern govt educational system has not been getting the job done for at least 30yrs.

One principle is 2 model the successful people, students included, in life. Do what they do and, for the most part, get the outcomes they realize.
This is a universal principle.

Either that or 1st take on an attitude adjustment.