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Daily Howler: A ninth-grade class needed massive review. How did they get left behind?
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FAREWELL, GABRIELA! A ninth-grade class needed massive review. How did they get left behind? // link // print // previous // next //

THE LATEST WRONG NUMBERS: Does anyone ever give accurate data to Washington Post education writers? In yesterday’s paper, Nick Anderson presented another profile of new Prince George’s superintendent John Deasy (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/21/06). But uh-oh! As Anderson notes, numbers from previous profiles of Deasy have now been declared inoperative:
ANDERSON (2/23/06): In many ways, Deasy's experience here [in the Santa Monica-Malibu school district] contrasts with what he will face when he moves east. This school district is one-tenth as large as the 133,000-student Prince George's system. State data show it has about 12,500 students through grade 12, lower than a 14,000-student figure Deasy had given The Washington Post. Deasy's initial total included about 1,500 students in adult programs.
Finally, our editors allow us to say it: Oopsy Deasy! To his credit, Anderson corrects the numbers Deasy gave to the Post—and, presumably, to the Prince George’s school board. And who knows? Maybe this was just a misunderstanding. But Deasy gained at least two advantages when he added “adult program” students onto his district’s total numbers. This isn’t earth-shattering, but it deserves review—a review we’ll offer tomorrow. We’ll post Part 4 of our current series, “Farewell, Gabriela,” on Monday.

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.

Part 2: Thousands of kids are quitting school—because of their school board’s “high standards.”

In Part 3, we ask how Los Angeles kids get so far behind. Part 4 follows on Monday.<

PART 3—HOW THEY GOT SO FAR BEHIND: It would be a better world if every ninth grader could take Algebra 1 with a reasonable expectation of success. But at present, we don’t happen to live in that world, although many school boards—in thrall to the latest high-minded theories—show no sign of knowing. In particular, Los Angeles schools are full of ninth graders who have no business taking Algebra 1—unless we want them to struggle and fail, and waste a year of instruction. And now, they’re also turned into drop-outs—now that the Los Angeles school board has made Algebra 1 a requirement for high school graduation (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/23/06). As Duke Helfand explains in the Los Angeles Times, Gabriela Ocampo took Algebra 1—and failed it—six times, then dropped out of school midway through the twelfth grade. And thousands of other such students are being forced out of school—as the board sings, “Farewell, Gabriela.”

No, it isn’t just Gabriela. The Los Angeles schools are full of ninth-graders who are extremely weak in math (see below)—kids who lack the prerequisites for Algebra 1, and have no business taking it. When these kids take this course, they are destined to fail—and yes, they’re destined to fail again if they’re forced to retake it. “Educational psychologists say re-enrolling such students in algebra decreases their chances of graduating,” Helfand notes in his brilliant report. “The strategy has also failed to provide students with what they need most: a review of basic math.” Result? Many students struggle and fail—then fail again, and again after that. No, it isn’t just Gabriela. Helfand describes another Los Angeles kid who is being extremely ill-served:

HELFAND (1/30/06): Teachers complain that they have no time for remediation, that the rapid pace mandated by the district leaves behind students like Tina Norwood, 15, who is failing beginning algebra for the third time...
Her teacher wasn't surprised when Tina bombed a recent test that asked her, among other things, to graph the equations 4x + y = 9 and 2x — 3y = —6. She left most of the answers blank, writing a desperate message at the top of the page: “Still don't get it, not gonna get it, guess i'm seeing this next year!”
Teachers wage a daily struggle in classes filled with students like Tina.
Tina Norwood, 15, has given up—but in all likelihood, she never belonged in this course in the first place. Traditionally, algebra wasn’t a graduation requirement—it was a course for college-bound students, a sign of academic distinction. Other kids—kids who might have been far behind “grade level”—got the basic math instruction they actually needed. Today, of course, thousands of L. A. ninth-graders are far behind “grade level” in math—years and years behind, in fact. “High school math instructors...face crowded classes of 40 or more students,” Helfand writes, “some of whom do not know their multiplication tables or how to add fractions or convert percentages into decimals.” Meanwhile, “math coach Kathy De Soto said she was surprised to find something else: students who still count on their fingers.” But this is all irrelevant now, given the district’s ill-advised “higher standards;” under their district’s high-minded new rules, these students get pushed into algebra class, with failure a foregone conclusion. “Birmingham [High School] teacher Steve Kofahl said many students don't understand that X can be an abstract variable in an equation and not just a letter of the alphabet,” Helfand continues, somewhat arcanely. And he describes a ninth-grade “review” lesson—a lesson Tina’s latest algebra teacher saw that he had to offer:
HELFAND: Her teacher, George Seidel, devoted a class this fall to reviewing equations with a single variable, such as x — 1 = 36. It's the type of lesson students were supposed to have mastered in fourth grade.
“Seidel once brokered multimillion-dollar business deals but left a 25-year law career, hoping to find a more fulfilling job and satisfy an old desire to teach,” Helfand writes. But in the passage quoted above, we se him teaching fourth-grade material—in his high school algebra class. Duh! Students who have to review such basic material didn’t belong in this class to begin with—unless they live in a district which serves educational fads, not the needs of real students. For the record, Seidel was one of Gabriela’s teachers, too. “Seidel did not appear to make a difference with Gabriela Ocampo,” Helfand reports. “She failed his class in the fall of 2004—her sixth and final semester of Fs in algebra.” During all those years, of course, Gabriela was not being offered “what [she] need[ed] most: a review of basic math.”

Yes, it would be a better world if Seidel’s ninth-graders were ready for algebra. Manifestly, though, they are not ready—a fact their school district’s “higher standards” can’t hide. Seidel had to teach them fourth-grade math—not the challenging ninth-grade algebra on which they would eventually be tested.

This raises an obvious question, of course: How did these students ever get so far behind in the first place? How did they fail to master that fourth grade math when they were in the fourth grade? Algebra requirements to the side, how did thousands of Los Angeles children get left behind on this scale?

There is no way to answer that question about an individual student, like Gabriela. And the general answer to that question would involve a range of factors, many beyond a school system’s control. But based on our own classroom experience, we’ll suggest that many kids get left behind in the lower grades because they’re asked to do too much, not too little. They’re asked to read books they can’t actually read; in math, they’re asked to follow academic programs they can’t reasonably expect to keep pace with. In Helfand’s report, we read about a bunch of kids who are forced to take a challenging course for which they plainly lack the prerequisites. But for thousands and thousands of low-income kids, this process starts in the earliest grades; they are constantly asked to study material for which they lack the prerequisites. Somewhere in our suburban schools, kids aren’t being challenged enough; they’re being asked to do too little. But in our inner-city schools, the problem is often the opposite. The L. A. schools show absurd bad judgment assigning these students to Algebra 1. But often, these kids encountered this same bad judgment in their earliest years.

Let’s recall that striking account from the latest new study of low-income ed (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 8/29/05). The study was authored by the Center for American Progress. Here’s a portrait of low-income kids—in the real world we currently live in:

CENTER FOR AMERICAN PROGRESS: Young low-income and minority children are more likely to start school without having gained important school readiness skills, such as recognizing letters and counting...By the fourth grade, low-income students read about three grade levels behind non-poor students.
As this passage notes, many low-income kids are seriously “behind” on the day they first enter school—and they’re three years behind when they’re in the fourth grade! What happens to these kids in their lower-grade classrooms? Often, we’re invited to think that these kids aren’t being challenged enough. In fact, they are often asked to read books they can’t read—and to keep up with instruction they simply can’t follow. Do they lack the prerequisites for Algebra 1? Often, they lacked the prerequisite skills and understandings for most of their lower-grade work! Why did Seidel have to review fourth-grade material in his ninth-grade algebra course? Often, because their teachers moved too fast when these kids were in the lower grades! For forty years, high-minded theorists have assured the world that low-income kids aren’t challenged enough. Have these theorists ever set foot in a low-income school? Or do they theorize from lofty aeries on Mars? The basic reality is often the opposite—and no, this problem doesn’t start in ninth grade, with this school district’s ill-advised policies.

Thousands of kids were destined to fail when L.A. forced them into algebra class. But they were often “left behind” in the lower grades too—asked to read books they couldn’t read, to keep up with instruction for which they weren’t ready. Result? When they showed up in the ninth grade, they were baffled by basic material. And their school board—in thrall to the latest fine theory—deprived them of the basic instruction which they actually needed. Raise your hands if you think that Seidel’s one class on that material was really enough.)

It’s easy to pretend that we live in a world where all ninth-graders can take Seidel’s class. It’s easy unless you’ve seen real kids in their low-income schools as they struggle with failure and cry. We have seen those kids—and remember them well. By contrast, most of that inept school board hasn’t. They enforce “higher standards,” which came from a dream—and they sing, “Farewell Gabriela.”

MONDAY—PART 4: Vacuous theory—and liberal indifference—add up to pain, waste and failure.

BACK TO BASICS: Let’s review a few of the basics:

Traditionally, Gabriela would not have taken algebra in her ninth grade year. Traditionally, algebra was for college-bound students; if you hadn’t mastered the basic prerequisites, you weren’t assigned to take it. Duh! You also weren’t assigned to take Spanish 4 if you couldn’t even pass Spanish 1.

Nothing is worse than forcing a student to take a class where she’s destined to fail. By every traditional pedagogical theory, students should not be taking algebra until they’ve mastered the basic prerequisites. This traditional theory is now thrown away as we serve the great god, “Higher standards.” Often, the precepts of this great new god have clearly been dreamed up on Mars.

Finally, here’s the key statement from this part of Helfand’s report: “Educational psychologists say re-enrolling such students in algebra decreases their chances of graduating, The strategy has also failed to provide students with what they need most: a review of basic math.” Duh! Ninth-graders who are years behind should be taking basic math, not algebra! But a great new god roars out his demands—and school boards rush to appease him.