There were two articles in the Mercury News Thursday that may seem unrelated, but I find them deeply connected:
California Requires Every Eighth Grader to be Tested in Algebra
Foreclosures Filings Surge 53% in June
Algebra is a vital math skill, taking it in eighth grade puts kids on a track to start calculus in high school, and this helps them prepare to challenge the Asian Math Menace and get into college. I agree with all this. Can we move on?
I also know that when we push kids into math for which they aren’t prepared, they do not, as policymakers dream, rise marvelously to the occasion and learn three or four years of math in one. Some children, under the influence of some teachers, can make such a gain, but the vast majority of kids and teachers will flounder awfully. They will hate math, they will believe that they cannot do it, and they will never learn the basic skills they need to survive. This is not low expectations, this is proven reality.
This brings us to the second article. It is mind-boggling the number of Americans who signed up for mortgages they couldn’t possibly afford and accepted the over-valued prices of homes that couldn’t possibly be sustained. We’ve heard and read a lot about borrowers being “swindled” and “tricked” into poor mortgage arrangements by “predatory lenders.” But more than an ethical problem, this is an educational one.
The crisis in our housing market is a result of millions of Americans not having number sense, not knowing how to check their figures, or how to run a spreadsheet or how to even make use of a mortgage calculator online. They relied on lenders to do the math for them and they didn’t have the skills and confidence to put a halt on things that didn’t add up. I’m not suggesting that we mandate finance standards in third grade, but rather that if our education system didn’t leave our citizenry hating math and feeling totally incapable in using it, they wouldn’t fall for these tricks.
For the vast majority of people, math, like reading, is entirely a means to an end. It is a set of tools to be used across a lifetime, not a milestone achieved once and left speedily behind. The math skills required to sensibly negotiate a mortgage are almost entirely taught in sixth grade. But with top-down mandates of math performance, we guarantee that unless they are learned then, they never will. No time to cover vital skills, on to Algebra! Doesn't matter if you're just mastering percents, on to Algebra! The inevitable turn of phrase is that setting goals beyond the reach of many kids only serves to leave every unprepared child behind.
If we’re serious about getting all California kids into algebra in eighth grade, start with serious, drastic action…in second grade. End social promotion. Mandate summer school. Publish teacher names and passing percentages in the paper. The next year extend it to third grade. Continue until our system is exclusively producing eighth graders ready for algebra and then demand they all take a test. Solving our math problems by starting with an algebra test in eighth grade is akin to trying to solve our obesity epidemic by mandating that all 45 year-olds run a marathon. Too much, too late.
Giving children tests we haven’t prepared them to take only serves to take away their confidence in their abilities and their enjoyment of learning. Every day, the news makes plain the cost of such a mistake.