Daily Howler logo
FAREWELL, GABRIELA! “Faddish” theories help produce an Era of Magical Thinking: // link // print // previous // next //
TUESDAY, FEBRUARY 28, 2006

A NEW SET OF EXCELLENT QUESTIONS: A long-time reader e-mails questions to follow up on yesterday’s post (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/27/06). He seeks to interpret the reader who said that students should have to pass algebra:
E-MAIL: I think the reader is trying to get your idea of what the curriculum would look like for, say, a challenged 7th or 9th grader. What kind of reading, English, History, Science, etc. If Algebra 1 is too tough, what kind of math?

Persisting for 4 years to show up in high school is all well and good, but if you've written off a number of subjects, what is the kid showing up to do exactly? With, of course, the corollary: Is it worth showing up for this diminished curriculum in order to display perseverance?

Those questions will occur to many readers, and we’ll try to answer them later this week. Is it really worth it to keep showing up if a kid can’t pass Algebra 1? What kind of work should these students be doing? These are excellent, basic questions—questions you’ll see addressed nowhere else as journalistic elites say “farewell” to these kids as they’re left far behind.

Special Report: Farewell, Gabriela!

VISIT OUR INCOMPARABLE ARCHIVES: Be sure to read each part of our current series, “Farewell, Gabriela:”

Part 1: A brilliant report in the L. A. Times begins with a child left behind. (See THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/22/06.)

Part 2: Thousands of kids are now quitting school—because of their school board’s “high standards.” (See THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/23/06.)

Part 3: A ninth-grade class needs fourth-grade work. How did they get left behind? (See THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/24/06.)

In Part 4, we ask how we ever reached this point—where thousands of kids are forced to drop out because they can’t meet “higher standards.”

PART 4—THE ERA OF MAGICAL THINKING: How did we ever reach this point, where thousands of kids are forced out of school because they can’t pass an algebra course—a course for which most of them lacked the prerequisites, a course kids never had to take to graduate in the past? How did we ever reach this point, where students are directed to waste their time failing this course six times in four years? In part, the answer is found in the greatest word Duke Helfand employed in his boffo report. Just what is that critical word? The word we refer to is “faddish:”

HELFAND (1/30/06): Compulsory algebra is a relatively new idea in the faddish realm of education reform.

Until recently, high schools offered a range of programs. Students seen as academically able were placed in college-prep classes. Others were funneled into vocational courses in which they learned such skills as auto mechanics and office technology.

It was an imperfect system in which some bright students, particularly minorities, could find themselves trapped in classes that steered them away from higher education.

Then, about a decade ago, the pendulum began to swing as the state decided to raise academic standards for high school graduation.

Ah yes! “The faddish realm of education”—in service to which, “the pendulum began to swing!” It’s the dirty non-secret of public education: Public ed is largely a second-tier discipline, presided over by second-tier watchdogs, and second-tier minds are always eager to seize on the newest sensation. Everyone knows—and jokes about—the discipline’s endlessly faddish ways, and the illogical excesses of the “standards movement” are the latest cosmic example. Where else would people think that a bunch of kids who still count on their fingers should be placed in Algebra 1—indeed, that they should take the course six separate times, long after it becomes perfectly obvious that they aren’t gonna pass it? But then, major parts of the “standards movement” never made much sense for these struggling kids—for kids who couldn’t even come close to meeting the standards we already had. What did we really expect to gain when we decided that we’d “raise standards” for them? What exactly was our thinking? At one point, Helfand quotes an observer who walks up right next to the truth:
HELFAND: Although experts widely agree that algebra sharpens young minds, some object to making it a graduation requirement.

"If you want to believe you're for standards, you're going to make kids take algebra. It has that ring of authenticity," said Robert Balfanz, an associate research scientist with the Center for Social Organization of Schools at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. "But you're not really thinking through the implications. There may be no good reason why algebra is essential for all high school students.”

“It has that ring of authenticity,” Balfanz said. “If you want to believe you're for standards, you're going to make kids take algebra.” (We love Balfanz’ sly phrase: “If you want to believe...”) But let’s speak more directly; “raising standards” sounds good! And yes, it’s the easiest thing in the word to do—to parade about “raising standards” for everyone else, punishing them when they can’t redeem the dumb-ass plans which you have concocted. Helfand begins to touch on that dynamic as he examines the brilliant thinking of the Los Angeles school board:
HELFAND: When the Los Angeles Board of Education approved tougher graduation requirements that went into effect in 2003, the intention was to give kids a better education and groom more graduates for college and high-level jobs. For the first time, students had to pass a year of algebra and a year of geometry or an equivalent class to earn diplomas.

The policy was born of a worthy goal but has proved disastrous for students unprepared to meet the new demands.

After discussing the wholly predictable failures and drop-outs which resulted from the board’s “worthy goal,” Helfand returns to the actual failure—the failure of the responsible adults, the type of failure which rarely gets punished. “The school district could have seen this coming,” Helfand writes, perfectly sensibly, “if officials had looked at the huge numbers of high school students failing basic math.” Duh! Dearest readers! D’ya think? But as we’ve seen all over the country as plans like this get enacted, then dropped, the people who run our public schools are among the dumbest brother-chuckers on earth. In city after city, in state after state, they announce these utterly ill-advised plans, then find themselves forced to draw back when faced with completely predictable outcomes. Readers, they’ve said it in one locale after another. They’re going to outlaw social promotion! Or: They’re going to make everyone pass Algebra 1—and yes, “a year of geometry or an equivalent class” after that! Anyone with an ounce of sense would know where these plans would inevitably lead, but on and on goes the march of the nincoms, as school boards and legislatures fall in line for the latest fads from the latest pied pipers. In Los Angeles, kids had been flunking math in the lower grades; in fact, they’d been flunking math in droves. They came into high school “counting on their fingers;” according to Helfand, they didn’t know “their multiplication tables or how to add fractions or convert percentages into decimals.” Indeed, in George Seidel’s class, they they had to review the type of lesson students were supposed to have mastered in fourth grade.But so what! The school board had heard of the latest new fad, and they decided that, just as Moses commanded the waters, they would command the children to pass! But the children couldn’t pass this course because they were deeply confused and unqualified. Sadly, Helfand lays out the self-impressed thinking of one of this plan’s brilliant architects:
HELFAND: Former board President Jose Huizar introduced this latest round of requirements, which the board approved in a 6-1 vote last June.

Huizar said he was motivated by personal experience: He was a marginal student growing up in Boyle Heights but excelled in high school once a counselor placed him in a demanding curriculum that propelled him to college and a law degree.

"I think there are thousands of kids like me, but we're losing them because we don't give them that opportunity," said Huizar, who left the school board after he was elected to the Los Angeles City Council last fall. "Yes, there will be dropouts. But I'm looking at the glass half full.”

It’s almost impossible to get that dumb—or self-referential—in any other walk of life. Are there low-income ninth-graders in L. A. who should be taking Algebra 1? Of course there are—there are many such kids—and there are obvious ways to figure out who they are. But not for Huizar! Huizar recalls his own inspiring life story, and decides that all kids must march to his model. The brighter kids would take Algebra 1—but then too, so would everyone else! So would the kids who were counting on fingers, and all the others who were deeply confused—the struggling kids who would obviously fail, the kids who, by all traditional measures, simply didn’t belong in this class. They would fail, then be forced out of school—as the board sang, “Farewell, Gabriela.”

No, the logic of the “standards movement” never really made much sense when applied to the nation’s low-scoring schools. These schools were full of deserving kids who were years behind—three years behind by the time of fourth grade! They couldn’t come close to meeting the standards we already had—so we decided we'd set standards higher! You have to be the dumbest lover-chuckers on earth to be taken in by faddist thinking like that. But school boards—and education writers—have happily bought it, with predictable outcomes. Again, we’ll let Roy Romer explain the way it went down in L. A.:

HELFAND: The course that traditionally distinguished the college-bound from others has denied vast numbers of students a high school diploma.

"It triggers dropouts more than any single subject," said Los Angeles schools Supt. Roy Romer. "I think it is a cumulative failure of our ability to teach math adequately in the public school system.”

Romer thinks this is a cumulative failure of the system? But it isn’t the system which is paying the price for the foolish plan which the board put in place. It isn’t Romer who’s losing his pay. It’s Gabriela, who has lost her diploma.

So part of the problem of low-income schools stems from this faddish, illogical “thinking.” The “standards movement” is now seen as Bush’s baby, but its peculiar logic has been pushed by major pols of both parties for the past twenty years. It is magical thinking, in service to fad—and yes, it has led to predictable failure. But faddist thinking is only one cause for this Era of Magical Thinking. Tomorrow, we’ll look at another cause. Tomorrow, we’ll look for the liberals.

TOMORROW—PART 5: Farewell, liberals!

MORE FROM THE ERA OF MAGICAL THINKING: Are L.A. kids dropping out, in droves, because they can’t pass Algebra 1? So what! The school board knows just what to do! Let’s make them pass Algebra 2 while they’re at it:

HELFAND: Now the Los Angeles school board has raised the bar again. By the time today's second-graders graduate from high school in 2016, most will have to meet the University of California's entry requirements, which will mean passing a third year of advanced math, such as algebra II...
Truly, an Era of Magical Thinking. Moses commanded the waters to part—and we will command struggling children to pass. And yes, we know—we know full well—where all this magic will lead us.

A SECOND EXPERT, ON THE SCENE: Above, Hopkins’ Balfanz notes the obvious; “you're not really thinking through the implications” if you compel these hapless, floundering kids to take a class they’re certain to fail. (To David Broder, of course, they’re dropping out because the work isn’t hard enough! See THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/27/06, for a sense of what real failure looks like.) At the end of Helfand’s piece, he quotes another expert—one who is on the scene each day, unlike his high-minded school board:

HELFAND: The chairman of Birmingham [High School]'s math department, Rick Prizant, said he believes the college-prep agenda is a noble but misguided policy dictated by district officials out of touch with the realities of the classroom. Where others see opportunity, he sees catastrophe.

"They're being very unrealistic in what they are asking....We're spinning our wheels here," said Prizant, who doubles as the school's athletic director. "I think you're going to see more dropouts. It's frightening to me.”

Prizant thinks we’re going to see more drop-outs? Of course we’re going to see more drop-outs! As we note in the e-mail above, some readers wonder if that really matters. We’ll be happy to speak to that in the days ahead. And we’ll answer that very good question: What should these ninth-graders be studying?