California state board mandates algebra for all eighth-graders
By Joetta Sack-Min
The California State Board of Education’s decision that every eighth-grader must take algebra will be costly and require districts to recruit thousands of new math teachers, school board leaders say. But the underlying question is whether students will be ready to take the course.
The state board voted in July to require every eighth-grade student to take Algebra I and pass an assessment, a move endorsed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. The regulation will take effect within three years, giving districts little time to recruit new teachers and implement the curriculum.
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell estimates it will cost the fiscally strapped state about $3.1 billion to comply with the measure by 2011.
According to research by the Center for Teaching and Learning in Santa Cruz, the state already needs some 33,000 new math and science teachers over the next decade to accommodate a wave of teacher retirements, rising enrollments, and increased demands for student achievement. Not surprisingly, math and science positions are often the hardest to fill.
The California School Boards Association has numerous questions about the legality of the state board’s decision. CSBA is questioning whether the state board overstepped its authority and gave proper notice of its meeting agenda when it approved the measure and whether the new requirement fits into existing state standards. It has asked the board to re-evaluate its decision at its September meeting.
Holly Jacobson, CSBA’s assistant director for policy analysis, said local officials should make the call on when to enroll students in algebra courses because “it doesn’t make sense to require students to be enrolled in a course they’re not prepared for.”
“This decision represents a fundamental change in policy direction with no basis in fact, or data to support it,” she said. “While there may be merit in revisiting when students should take Algebra I, to do so in the manner which occurred ties the hands of those who know best, at the local level, what is appropriate for each student.”
There has been a growing effort nationally to introduce algebra at earlier grades, but California is the first state to make it a requirement. The measure was supported by the business community and Schwarzenegger, who said it would draw more students to science and technology careers and boost the state’s economy.
CSBA and other state education groups had spent weeks looking for a compromise solution and were surprised that the state board took action in July. At an Aug. 15 press conference, O’Connell joined CSBA leaders and advocates to raise policy and practical concerns about the measure, but he said school districts must prepare for the mandate.
Shortly after the measure was passed, CSBA Executive Director Scott Plotkin called the decision “a classic example of a manufactured crisis.”
“This is a time when the state should be celebrating the progress made in the number of students taking Algebra I in the eighth grade,” he said. “The real crisis is how schools will be able to meet this requirement.”
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