"The algebra mandate is, and will always be, as pointless as it is unrealistic. But issue a stupid order and, as O'Connell almost said, you deserve a stupid response."
By Peter Schrag - Sacramento Bee
Tuesday, August 19, 2008 - Last week, O'Connell, the state superintendent of public instruction, called for an additional $3.1 billion a year to allow California's middle schools to meet a three-year deadline by which all students must take (and presumably pass) algebra in the eighth grade.
That, for at least a short spell, made him the funniest man in Sacramento. And it was all done with a straight face. O'Connell called it his "Algebra I Success Initiative" and launched it with a press conference backed by the requisite spear carriers from the education establishment, a budget, and all the other paraphernalia appertaining to serious public business.
The algebra deadline was set in July by the state Board of Education at the direction of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who appoints its members and who, in turn, was nudged by some hard-liners in the California business community. If there weren't any labor laws, they're the kind of guys who'd have their workers putting in 80 hours a week.
The algebra mandate is, and will always be, as pointless as it is unrealistic. But issue a stupid order and, as O'Connell almost said, you deserve a stupid response. It would have been absurd even without the monster budget deficit that Schwarzenegger is trying to dig out of because, as O'Connell surely knew, even $3 billion a year won't produce success, certainly not within three years and probably not ever.
Right now, just over half of California's eighth graders are taking algebra I, a huge increase from just a few years ago. Many pass, but many also fail and take it again in ninth grade. But that gain in algebra enrollment, driven by state policies that penalize schools for every eighth-grader who doesn't take algebra, represents the low-hanging fruit.
Thousands of eighth-graders who take one or another general math or pre-algebra courses flunk those, as well. Many more struggle in seventh-grade math. Even three years of intensified preparation with the smaller classes, the extra materials, the longer hours, the additional summer programs, the beefed-up teacher training and all the other items in O'Connell's long list aren't going to get many such students ready for algebra in eighth grade.
But O'Connell needn't worry, since he'll never get all that stuff he asked for. Even if the state had the money, it might have trouble finding enough qualified teachers. It doesn't have nearly enough now. One of the items on O'Connell's list is money to attract more teachers from abroad, but even that will be hard.
It would be great if all eighth-graders took algebra, and then geometry, advanced algebra, pre-calculus and calculus before they finished high school. Algebra is regarded as essential. But no law says it must be taken in grade eight, and few other states require it. If the larger California culture – parents, politicians, the business community – were more committed to serious academic endeavor and less to posturing about it there might be a chance.
In theory, algebra is a California graduation requirement, but since students can pass the state's math exit exam without knowing any algebra, the new mandate is just another piece of evidence that state education policy is trapped in a dysfunctional governance scheme overlaid by a fog of political bluster.
The governor, through his control of the state board, sets policy. The governor and Legislature control the budget, assuming anyone does. But the governor pays little attention to education, which may be a good thing since he has little expertise or background on school issues. Every now and then, the Legislature charges in to add its own priorities to school standards, curriculum and testing policies, or to block reappointment of a board member who doesn't adhere to political or social orthodoxy.
Meanwhile the state Department of Education, headed by the independently elected superintendent, is supposed to implement policy in a thousand local districts, each run by its own elected board.
But neither the governor, nor the Legislature nor the board, have much control over the superintendent, except for the governor's power to occasionally punish him or her by cutting the department's budget. A few years ago, in another act of punishment, the Legislature zeroed out the board's budget, but that time the governor did nothing.
So who's accountable? Add the fact that most of California's teachers are trained by state university professors operating by their own ideas and priorities, many of them bearing little relationship to the policies set by the governor and his board, and the fog gets even thicker.
If there's one constant in all this mess it's the widely recognized fact that California's educational ambitions far outrun its willingness to invest in realizing them. O'Connell's department helped trigger the confusion that led to the board's eighth-grade edict, but his $3 billion black joke last week was on us all.