Wednesday, July 30, 2008 | Algebra was as inscrutable as a foreign language when Brianna Demir first sat, befuddled, in her eighth grade class. Gibberish seemed to pour from the teacher’s mouth. Demir tried to work the alphabet soup of Xs and Ys into sensible answers, but her test and homework came back blotched with errors.

Transferring into an easier class helped Demir through eighth grade math, and prepared her to pass algebra in ninth grade.

“It was a big relief,” Demir said. “It built my confidence. I just needed more time with the teacher to work things through.”

Now a junior at Canyon Crest Academy in Carmel Valley, Demir counts math as her favorite subject, and even spent her summer taking precalculus to get ahead for her fall calculus class. Instead of vaulting through algebra, she learned to love math by taking it slowly.

That couldn’t happen in many San Diego schools where algebra is required for all eighth graders. And her story will soon be a rarity statewide.

Within three years, California will require all eighth graders to take an algebra exam, spurring schools to enroll all students in algebra. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger lauded the algebra push for raising expectations and preparing California students to compete globally.

But as California prepares to thrust every eighth grader into algebra, San Diego math scores could serve as a cautionary tale of the risks of raising the bar, and the investment required to make it work.

San Diego Unified enrolls a higher percentage of its eighth graders in algebra than Los Angeles, San Francisco or Long Beach schools. Some of its middle schools offer algebra and only algebra to eighth graders, whether their students are ready or not. Yet fewer San Diego Unified students are scoring proficient on algebra tests than their peers in Long Beach or San Francisco — a statistic that reveals the perils of pushing all students into the same class.

The net result is that roughly 20 percent of all San Diego eighth graders both take the state algebra exam and score proficient or higher. By that standard, the school district outperforms Los Angeles and the California average, rivals Long Beach, and falls short of San Francisco and the San Diego County average. But when students enroll in algebra and falter, they may lose enthusiasm for math — a cost that transcends the statistics.

“We may not be helping them, but hurting them. It sounds good to say we’ve got 72 percent of our kids enrolled in algebra,” said Kim Hall, who leads math curriculum in San Diego Unified. “But look at how they’re doing. It’s not something you want to brag about.”

Algebra for all was meant to abolish the tracking of Latino and African American students into easier math classes, and to prime more students for science and engineering careers. It was also driven by standardized tests: California docks San Diego Unified scores when eighth graders eschew the algebra test for a statewide math test meant for sixth or seventh graders.

To avoid that penalty, some principals decided to offer only algebra. In schools such as Clark Middle School, algebra is now the norm for all eighth graders, even if they struggle with math. That’s a good thing, said Clark math teacher Miko Uhuru, who favors California’s new algebra rule and believes Clark is challenging its students to think abstractly and avoid easy answers.

“Life is not going to be easy,” Uhuru said. “You have to be able to think, and algebra encourages them to think. … If you want to retile a room in your house, how much would you spend? How much tile do you need? You can write an equation for it. Or do you want to keep going back to the store, just because you’re not willing to think?”

Willing or unwilling, many students have fumbled when faced with thinking algebraically. Only 25 percent of Clark eighth graders scored proficient or higher on the statewide algebra test in 2007. Those eighth graders feed into Hoover High School, where algebra remains sticky: Less than 3 percent of Hoover ninth graders scored proficient on the algebra test in 2007.

“It’s a huge jump from pre-algebra to algebra,” said Kevin Crawford, a math teacher at Clark, who opposes the new rule. “And to be honest, I really haven’t seen a lot of success.”

Crawford is frustrated. Last year, he proposed teaching only half of the California algebra standards during eighth grade. He reasoned that he would trade breadth for depth, giving struggling students more expertise in fewer concepts instead of skimming a longer list of ideas. The principal axed the idea.

“I understand her concerns,” Crawford said. “But this algebra standard — it’s like saying that all people will run a four-minute mile. It’s just unrealistic.”

The stakes are especially high in San Diego Unified because eighth graders who fail two core subjects are now sent to summer school. If they fail again, they will enroll in a new, separate program for struggling students, the Star Academy. Algebra has already proved a stumbling block: About 30 percent of San Diego Unified eighth graders taking algebra failed the class in 2007.

“You wave a magic wand and say algebra is now the standard for eighth grade,” said Brad Phillips, executive director of the California Partnership for Achieving Student Success. “But what are we doing in seventh grade, in sixth grade, in fifth and fourth grade to make sure they’ll be successful?”

Algebra focuses on how numbers relate, and often depicts them as symbols. It has long suffered a reputation as the Matterhorn of math classes: abstract and divorced from reality. It turns many symbols that students recognize on their heads, transforming even the equals sign.

Hall said many students see the equals sign as a command when learning to add, subtract or multiply, urging them to complete the blank side of an equation: Multiply 2 and 6. Subtract 12 from 47. But to understand algebra, they must reinterpret the sign as a symbol of equality.

“Algebra should be one of the most exciting courses a student takes — they’re looking at mathematics from an entirely new perspective,” said Bruce Arnold, San Diego site director of the Math Diagnostic Testing Project. “It’s not a boring computational skill. It’s the art of logic and reasoning. But algebra can be very intimidating if it’s taught poorly.”

Elementary teachers often lack math expertise; many openly loathe the subject. They need training to groom students to take algebra earlier, said Barbara Edwards, founding director of Math for America San Diego. The problem extends to middle school teachers. Even those who majored in mathematics must tailor classes to help struggling students and math whizzes toiling in the same algebra classrooms.

Those trainings can be expensive: Hall estimated that San Diego Unified spent $80,000 to send 120 teachers to a single week of summer training. Pulling teachers out of classes for training during the year means paying substitutes, who earn between $135 and $175 daily. Making algebra work for every eighth grader could entail retraining thousands of teachers, she said, and money provided by the National Science Foundation grant to San Diego Unified has just evaporated.

Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has promised extra resources to help schools with algebra, but Edwards and Hall are skeptical that money will surface amid a state budget crisis that has already cut millions from local schools.

Before California unveiled its algebra dictate, math experts were hammering out their own plan — a plan that is now moot, Arnold said. They crafted algebra readiness classes like the course Demir took in eighth grade, and publishers were creating textbooks to meet their demands.

Twenty-five schools in San Diego Unified are still enrolling kids in algebra readiness classes to ease the transition into algebra, Hall said. But those readiness classes will be largely extinct in 2011 when the new algebra rule goes into effect.

“If they weren’t ready for algebra in the first place, taking algebra won’t address that,” Arnold said. “It’s a cycle of failure, and I don’t see how that benefits students.”

Nor does mandating algebra guarantee that all eighth graders will cover the same material. Phillips said that despite statewide standards, schools and even colleges in San Diego teach “different flavors of algebra,” with different expectations of how students prove their knowledge and what skills they need.

Parent Leah Martinez has even witnessed how dramatically math education differs between San Diego Unified schools. Her youngest daughter toddled home from kindergarten with geometry and science projects, and even started talking about algebra, yet Martinez worries about algebra being forced on her older daughter, an eighth grader who switched from Spanish to English classes in fourth grade and still falters in math.

“If they’re going to require it in eighth grade, they need to start in kindergarten or first grade,” she said. “It’s amazing that my (younger) daughter has a comprehension about what algebra is. It really, really works. But my eighth grader — if she has to take algebra, she’s going to fail.”

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