Some of you know my story. Others do not. But I can tell you why, as both a native Washingtonian and a teacher in Los Angeles, why so many students don’t get the access to high-quality math instruction they deserve, an issue featured last month on Dropout Nation‘s report last month on the lack of college-preparatory opportunities for kids attending D.C.-area schools.
My mother and father taught in D.C. Public Schools from the 1960s through the 1980s. Because our family were practicing Catholics, my brother and I attended Catholic schools our entire secondary lives. I didn’t take Algebra 1 in middle school. But I still ended up taking A.P. Calculus by my senior year at a very competitive high school (or, as my former pastor described, the good Jesuit one downtown versus the expensive one in the ‘burbs).
I’ll start off by saying this: Algebra 1 in middle school should not be a prerequisite for access to higher mathematics in high school and beyond. What is needed and deserved for all students is a continuum of quality, committed educators who can teach the math they require.
Teaching in urban schools here in L.A., I can tell you that many schools choose not to instruct math in the sequence they should for two reasons. The first has to do with students unprepared for math. It is hard to teach Algebra 1 to 13-year-olds, or even high school students who cannot multiply fluently as well as lack a deep and broad vocabulary. How students are getting out of 3rd grade without multiplying through their 12’s should be a crime, a crime that’s committed with regularity in our urban schools.
The other has to do with the dearth of qualified teachers. Stanford, USC, Alabama and Oregon have an easier time finding 5-star football recruits than urban schools have finding high-quality, committed math teachers. We know what high quality is. Committed is a different story. When I talk about committed, I mean educators willing to hang around in urban schools for an extended period of time, as well as help a school build and maintain a culture of expectation and excellence.
Back when California required Algebra 1 instruction in eighth grade, you still had many students not taking Algebra 1 because schools and districts feared that the poor performance of the students would hurt the scores on the Academic Performance Index. Just 30 percent of eighth-graders took Algebra 1 in 2009-2010, according to Dropout Nation‘s analysis last year. Of course in the long run it would help the student; even if they failed in eighth grade, they would excel in ninth and still be on the path to calculus. But, of course, student needs often become secondary to the edu-bureaucracy’s needs.
One lesson for families and others in the D.C. metro area is that if districts (and teachers’ unions) aren’t willing to put educators where they need to be to fix this problem, then families must have the flexibility and freedom to demand other educational options that will work for this purpose. This includes launching charter schools, voucher programs, and other choices.
Another lesson can be seen on the boots on the ground level where I work. Give me some students who can multiply and reduce a fraction, and I’ll have them ready for high school. Then I can pray they will get the same commitment from other teachers that they have gotten from me when they leave me — instead of the “could you come teach at our high school?” request I get way too unacceptably often.