FAREWELL, GABRIELA! Thousands of kids are quitting school—because we maintain low standards for school boards: // link // print // previous // next //
THURSDAY, FEBRUARY 23, 2006 SIDEKICKED IT: This morning, we played guest sidekick to our favorite, Bill Press, on his eponymous Sirius show. As usual, the toughest part of early morning radio was figuring out how to get into the building. Meanwhile, on Bill’s actual show, “the left is right and the right is wrong”—except today, when Peter King called. Many thanks to Bill and his crew for such a delightful experience. Did Bill ever dream, when he was a kid, that he’d have an eponymous program? Special Report: Farewell, Gabriela!
HELFAND (1/30/06): Gabriela failed that first semester of freshman algebra.Midway through her twelfth grade year, Gabriela Ocampo dropped out—because she couldn’t pass a course for which she most likely lacked the prerequisites. Indeed, thousands of students are now quitting high school in Los Angeles because they can’t pass this one course. Why are they required to take it? Because we now set “high standards” for very poor kids—and low ones for very dumb school boards. How many kids are dropping out because they can’t meet this requirement? Superintendent Roy Romer told Helfand that algebra “triggers dropouts more than any single subject.” Helfand doesn’t say how many kids have dropped out due to this new requirement; we’ll assume that no such data exist. But he does describe the chaos involved when low-income kids from inner-city schools are forced to take algebra—a course for which they often lack the standard prerequisites: HELFAND: Birmingham High in Van Nuys, where Gabriela Ocampo struggled to grasp algebra, has a failure rate that's about average for the district.Luckily, Lemus didn’t act on his “suicide thoughts.” But let’s say it again, because it’s the key; almost surely, most of those kids had no business in a first-year algebra course to begin with. They were there to serve a misapplied dream—the pleasing dream of “higher standards.” And now, the result of this ill-advised program is a bunch of kids out on the street. What do we mean when we say that these kids didn’t belong in an algebra class? Simple: We mean that they lacked the basic prerequisites—that they almost surely lacked proficiency in basic pre-algebra math. There’s nothing worse than putting kids into a class where they’re destined to fail, but this is happening all over the country as school boards break every pedagogic rule in the book to serve that great god, “higher standards.” They put perfectly decent kids, like Gabriela Ocampo, into classes for which they are unprepared—then stand back and watch them fail. Incredibly, they watched Ocampo fail six times—then watched her become one more drop-out. In the past, Ocampo wouldn’t have been assigned to this class, for which she was likely unprepared. Traditionally, Ocampo would have been taking a basic high school math course, from which she might have gained actual knowledge. (Who knows? She might have been ready for algebra after that.) Instead, she went into Algebra 1—then went there again and again and again. According to Helfand, this is the standard, cock-eyed practice now in effect at Birmingham High. “Like other schools in the nation's second-largest district, Birmingham High deals with failing students by shuttling them back into algebra, often with the same teachers,” he writes And this practice is just as dumb as it seems. “Educational psychologists say re-enrolling such students in algebra decreases their chances of graduating,” Helfand writes. One near-by school takes a much more sensible approach—and thereby risks Getting In Trouble: HELFAND:Almost surely, those kids should have been in those basic math courses before they wasted a year flunking algebra. Yes, Cleveland’s High’s 18 percent passing rate is a disaster—except when compared with Birmingham High and that astonishing, three percent district-wide average. But omigod! Cleveland High is at least attempting to put students into the courses they need! Result? “Cleveland's strategy comes with risk,” Helfand writes. “The state can lower the academic rankings of schools that remove ninth graders from first-year algebra. Consistently low rankings can invite district audits and penalties, including removal of teachers and administrators.” Good God! Even as three percent of district tenth-graders score proficient on their algebra test, the district demands that its high schools set the kids up to fail again. It insists that schools avoid giving students the basic work they need to prepare for this course.But then, such cock-eyed pedagogical practice seems to typify this entire mess. “The school district could have seen this coming if officials had looked at the huge numbers of high school students failing basic math,” Helfand writes. And he discusses a statewide problem—a lack of qualified math teachers. “[M]ore than 40 percent of eighth-grade algebra teachers in California lack a math credential,” Helfand writes. Surely, that shortage of qualified teachers isn’t helpful. But we’d have to say that, under current circumstances, requiring all students to pass algebra is a bad idea, whether their teachers are credentialed or not. Given the current, woeful state of low-income education, there is no reason to think that all ninth-graders can pass this course. We’ll promise you this: Thousands of these failing ninth-graders had no business in Algebra 1. Almost surely, they lacked the prerequisite knowledge. They were placed in the course to service a fad—to service the latest pleasing theory. In fact, we’ll bet you the cost of a first-class ticket on that legendary train traveling east from Nebraska: Gabriela Ocampo, a decent kid, didn’t belong in that algebra class. More likely, she belonged in “semester-long classes that focus on sixth- and seventh-grade material”—classes that addressed her actual needs. (Perhaps she could have taken algebra after that.) Nothing is worse than sending good kids into a class where they’re destined to fail. But Ocampo was destined to fail six times—and she was destined to fail for an obvious reason. As this remarkable story makes clear, we now maintain “higher standards” for our good and decent kids—and very low ones for our hapless school boards.
HELFAND: Cleveland's strategy comes with risk. The state can lower the academic rankings of schools that remove ninth graders from first-year algebra. Consistently low rankings can invite district audits and penalties, including removal of teachers and administrators.Perhaps you can see the logic here. Teaching algebra Monday through Friday didn’t work—so teaching it Saturdays most likely will! Gabriela failed the course six times. Perhaps she can pass on the weekends!
We'll state the key point in this tale one last time—many kids invited to those Saturday classes didn’t belong in this course to begin with. Instead, they belonged in basic math—in classes which addressed their real needs. Hapless school boards love to dream—but thousands of students have |