When Math Was Dumb

Algebra Used to Be The Exception in San Jose. It Took a Fight To Make It the Rule.

Dianne Pors did not like what she saw when she took her first job in 1975 as a math teacher at Yerba Buena High School in the East Side Union High School District of San Jose.

She had to teach five classes a day of something called Lodestar Math. Over 60 percent of incoming freshmen in the district’s 11 high schools took the course. It had almost no algebra in it. The students came to class each day, took a quiz, and were handed a worksheet by Pors. If there were questions, she would answer them, but the idea was to learn by doing. When they completed one worksheet she handed them another.

This was at once tragic—and unsurprising.

Such low-level, fill-in-the-blanks math classes were common in U.S. high schools. Yerba Buena, like the majority of U.S. schools, operated on the belief that algebra—the prerequisite to the math and science that were essential to modern civilization—was too tough for most ninth graders. So instead, they got remedial math. Teachers and students called it dummy math. Many students graduated from high school without taking algebra at all. Instead they were assigned an assortment of arithmetic courses with names like Business Math or Consumer Math.

Pors wanted more ninth graders to be taught algebra, so they could advance to geometry, trigonometry, and lab sciences. She thought many of her students were capable of that, but were being overlooked because they were low-income and their parents had not gone to college.

It took 15 years of struggle, as she rose to math department chair and then math coordinator for her school district, before she had a chance prove she was right in a national experiment, rare in the history of U.S. schools.

For Pors, that experiment—designed to eliminate remedial math from high schools altogether—began in 1990. One day, East Side superintendent Joe Coto asked Pors to join him at a meeting with College Board officials at their regional office near San Jose International Airport.

The officials explained that the College Board was launching a program called Equity 2000 in pilot areas throughout the country. They wondered if East Side, representing all the San Jose high schools east of the 101 Freeway, would like to participate. They handed out copies of a study by psychometricians Sol Pelavin and Michael Kane called Changing the Odds.

The study had inspired the $32 million program. Reading it became a sacred moment in Pors’ memory. The paper from Pealvin and Kane revealed data buttressing Pors’ long-held suspicion that the district was hurting students by failing to challenge them with algebra and other math courses needed for college.

According to Pelavin and Kane, students who took algebra and geometry in high school were far more likely to go to college than students denied a chance to get those courses. The effect was even stronger on the minority kids who were the majority at East Side.

“Only one out of every 40 black students who did not take at least one year of high school geometry attained a bachelor’s degree or senior status [in college] within four years of high school graduation; the comparable figure of Hispanic students is one in 60,” Pelavin and Kane wrote.

Changing the Odds became Pors’ favorite book. She kept it on her nightstand and never let anyone borrow it, although she found ways to get people their own copies.

The College Board regional officials said if East Side wanted to participate, and be eligible for funds for training and other expenses, the district had to agree to require that all ninth graders take Algebra I and all 10th graders take Geometry I.

Pors and other supportive East Side educators suffered frustration for many years. In 1991, when the project began, the district had only 45 percent of high school freshmen in Algebra I or more advanced courses. It would take five years before every ninth grader not in a special education program was enrolled in algebra.

Resistance to the experiment from principals, teachers, and the teachers’ union proved stronger than Pors expected. At some training sessions, Pors said, “they would come in because they had to come in, but they would open their newspapers and turn their backs on us.” After learning more techniques during the sessions, about 65 percent of teachers surveyed agreed that ninth graders could master the subject. “But I was saying, ‘What about the other 35 percent that we didn’t get?’” Pors recalled. “I think one of our shortcomings was that we didn’t keep after that 35 percent. The 35 percent that didn’t believe were the ones that would ultimately hold us back.”

Pors was in charge of staff development, giving teachers and counselors the methods and tools to bring more students into algebra and geometry and help them succeed. Many principals told her it wouldn’t work. Parents, too, called in to protest their children’s placement in algebra. They thought it was too much. Pors insisted that students take the course.

Progress at East Side eventually accelerated as a critical mass of students entered the program. From 1991 to 1997, the percentage of ninth graders in algebra increased from 45 to 90 percent. The pass rate in algebra increased from 43 to 65 percent. When Barbara L. Schallau, a math teacher and later coordinator in the school district, finished her master’s thesis on achievement trends in mathematics in East Side, she reported that “more Hispanic students (2,780) passed college preparatory mathematics classes in 1999 than were enrolled (2,157) in 1990.”

Vinetta Jones, the national director of Equity 2000, overseeing the seven school districts that were part of the project, reported that “more ninth graders (22,579) passed Algebra I by the end of 1997 than were even enrolled at the start of the project (18,934).”

Dummy math was pretty much dead. A few students, mostly those in special education or limited English programs, remained in non-algebra programs, but their numbers were small. In 2004, algebra became a high school graduation requirement in California.

Once educators were comfortable with all ninth graders taking algebra, they began to discover that many eighth graders could also do well in the course and be on track to take calculus by the end of high school. Between 2003 and 2009 in California, math education experts Ze’ev Wurman and Bill Evers reported in the San Francisco Chronicle, “the number of African-American students successfully taking Algebra I by grade eight more than tripled from 1,700 to 5,400; the jump among Hispanic students was from 10,000 to 45,000.”

Today California faces another era of change. The state is switching to lessons based on deeper common core standards. More honors courses are being required. Whether this effort produces the same long-term effects as Equity 2000 will depend on the persistence of teachers like Pors, who know their students are capable of doing more than worksheets in remedial arithmetic if given enough time and encouragement.

Jay Mathews, a Washington Post education columnist, is the author of eight books, most recently The War Against Dummy Math: How Seven School Districts Changed U.S. Education by Embracing Algebra for All.

Buy the Book at Amazon.
Primary Editor: Joe Mathews. Secondary Editor: T.A. Frank.
*Photo courtesy of retro traveler.
Explore Related Content
, ,


Send A Letter To the Editors

    Please tell us your thoughts. Include your name and daytime phone number, and a link to the article you’re responding to. We may edit your letter for length and clarity and publish it on our site.

    (Optional) Attach an image to your letter. Jpeg, PNG or GIF accepted, 1MB maximum.