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Daily Howler: Thousands of kids are quitting school--because we maintain low standards for school boards
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FAREWELL, GABRIELA! Thousands of kids are quitting school—because we maintain low standards for school boards: // link // print // previous // next //

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!

PART 2—HIGHER STANDARDS (EXCEPT FOR OUR SCHOOL BOARDS): No one can say that she didn’t try. As a freshman at Birmingham High in Los Angeles, Gabriela Ocampo took first-year algebra, as her counselor no doubt directed. Most likely, she shouldn’t have been in this course in the first place—more on that basic question will follow. But at some point in the late 1990s, the Los Angeles school board had gotten the latest buzz-word—“higher standards”—lodged inside its collective head. Result? They declared that students would have to pass Algebra 1 in order to graduate from high school. As Duke Helfand explains in the Los Angeles Times, this hadn’t been the traditional practice; before 2003, algebra had been a mark of distinction, “[t]he course that traditionally distinguished the college-bound [student] from others.” But now, every student would have to pass algebra to gain the dignity of a diploma—whether they were qualified to take the course or not. So Gabriela Ocampo took the course—and she flunked it. Indeed, she flunked it six separate times (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/22/06). Here, again, is the remarkable story at the heart of Helfand’s superb report:

HELFAND (1/30/06): Gabriela failed that first semester of freshman algebra. She failed again and again—six times in six semesters. And because students in Los Angeles Unified schools must pass algebra to graduate, her hopes for a diploma grew dimmer with each F.

Midway through 12th grade, Gabriela gathered her textbooks, dropped them at the campus book room and, without telling a soul, vanished from Birmingham High School.

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. Nearly half the ninth-grade class flunked beginning algebra last year.

In the spring semester alone, more freshmen failed than passed. The tally: 367 Fs and 355 passes, nearly one-third of them Ds.

All those failures and near failures have left a wake of discouraged students and exasperated teachers.

Fifteen-year-old Abraham Lemus, the son of Salvadoran immigrants, finally scraped by with a D after his mother hired a tutor. But he recalls how he failed the first time he took the course. “I was starting to get suicide thoughts in my head, just because of math,” he said.

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: Cleveland High, four miles from Birmingham, places ninth- and 10th-graders who get a D or F in algebra into semester-long classes that focus on sixth- and seventh-grade material and pre-algebra. Students then return to standard algebra classes.

Eighteen percent of Cleveland's 10th-graders were proficient in algebra on state tests last spring, compared with 8 percent at Birmingham and 3 percent districtwide.

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.

TOMORROW—PART 3: Basic question: Why are these kids so far behind? Why aren’t they ready for algebra?

PERHAPS WE NEED HIGHER STANDARDS IN LOGIC: At Cleveland High, they give students the math instruction they actually need—bureaucratically dangerous though that practice may be. But they don’t do that at Birmingham High! Here is Helfand’s mordant description of the approach taken there:

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.

Birmingham High, wary of these consequences, is attacking the algebra crisis the way many other schools do: providing students with extra help after school and on weekends. The school launched a round of Saturday classes last fall for 600 students who were failing beginning algebra. Only 100 showed up, even though administrators called each student's home.

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 very weak skills. Tomorrow, we’ll look at some relevant evidence from Helfand’s report—and we’ll ask why they’re so far behind.