Equity: More Money? Less Algebra?

The Williams adequacy case in California appears headed for a resolution with an agreement between Gov. Schwarzenegger and the plaintiffs to spend roughly $1 billion more on about 2,400, relatively low performing schools in the state. (See Sara’s post below) There’s little doubt that the schools involved in the lawsuit and many more are substandard. But it’s less clear that money alone will fix them. I spent many days at one of the schools named in the lawsuit—Fremont High School in South Los Angeles. Teachers and even administrators at the school told me, explicitly, without my asking, that the issue wasn’t that they didn’t have enough money. Indeed, the school had stacks of textbooks that had never been used, mostly because studnets couldn’t read them. In classes in which teachers used textbooks students had a copy for their use at home. Another set of books was made available in the classroom. Tens of thousands of dollars had been spent on high security fences. Yet, new batches of computers disappeared before they could be used because the windows on the building where they were installed had not been made secure. Money may certainly help low-performing schools and the physical environment must be conducive to learning. But so must the “learning” environment. Without clear expectations for teaching, and effective management, the money will disappear, like the computers, without a trace. We already know this. Fremont and many other schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District were already receiving extra funds from the settlement of a previous case, known as Rodriguez. At Fremont, what that meant was that teachers received several thousand dollars each year to buy extra supplies or books. They also received a stipend for working in a high-need school. Teachers told me the materials they ordered took months to arrive. The stipend was supposed to compensate them for working harder to stay in contact with parents, through calls or visits after schools. But despite the administration’s beseeching, many of them were too demoralized to do that. Another hefty dose of money had come from state legislation that doled out money to the lowest-performing schools in state. A small group of teachers loyal to the principal decided how to spend the money, cobbling together a last minute wish list. The school also had received extra federal money because it had long been on a state list of poorly performing schools. But that money had gotten caught up in a dispute of some sort and had gone to buy materials and training teachers for a reading program that was never put to use. Since then, the school has gotten a new principal and some of the faculty members who were most resistant have been moved. Still, it’s possible the new money will make a difference at Fremont and elsewhere. The point to remember, though, is that it’s not automatic. It will take strong leadership and management and oversight and a focused instructional plan, as well as more money, to make a difference.

A story by Greg Toppo of USA Today reports on the national push to get more kids to take algebra. ”The average person is going to have to be able to think through things pretty clearly, and a strong argument could be made that the rigors of algebra help,” says Lynn Arthur Steen, a math professor at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minn., and editor of the 2001 book Mathematics and Democracy. Debate continues on how to teach algebra so that the subject is not diluted to useless activities just to make it more “accessible.” That’s a challenge, a big one. Many middle-schoolers have not yet mastered basic calculation let alone problem-solving and have little number sense or capacity for mental math. Also, many middle school teachers took little math themselves beyond arithmetic. Another roadblock is that not all educators even agree that teaching all students algebra makes sense. Some schools have chosen to put so much emphasis on reading and writing that math takes a back seat in the earlier grades. Plus, some folks still adhere to the idea that there’s two kinds of people in the world–those who “get” math and those who don’t. Here’s a quote from Nel Noddings, the prominent theorist whose most recent book is called Education and Happiness and who thinks it’s wrong to ask those not interested or talented in math to learn algebra. “I have come to suspect that teaching everyone algebra and geometry is both wasteful and inconsiderate. The effort required from teachers wastes energy that could be spent on those interested and talented in mathematics. Worse, it wastes a multiplicity of nonmathematical talents that could be nurtured if we were not so insistent on mathematics for everyone. It also frightens people and makes them doubt their own competence.” She says schools would do better to teach kids to be good parents, to “teach them about love,” and to teach them to be homemakers, because those are more likely to be universal aspects of adults’ lives than is algebra.

Fortunately, there are other voices, such as Hyman Bass of the University of Michigan, who makes a strong argument that math is as important as reading and writing. At a session at the AERA meeting in San Diego last spring, he said the fact that math is learned unequally has to do with the quality of schooling and teaching, not the presence or lack of some math gene. “Suppose someone said that reading and writing are unequally achieved, and that some groups cannot read or write as well as others, and so therefore insisting on reading and writing is discriminatory?” That, of course, would be unthinkable and inequitable.

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