Math Hangover Thinking

The San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) made headlines with a surprising turnabout on its much-criticized school assignment policy. That leaves lingering arguments over another policy—the math curricula—emerging as a top issue in this year's school board race.

This year's race has turned out to be a unique one. Through sheer happenstance, no incumbents are running, and the seats have attracted a record number of candidates. One incumbent who planned on running again was forced out by a bureaucratic snafu, and one presumed front-runner, facing bipartisan criticism over transphobic remarks, was forced to drop out.

School board races in the City are customarily viewed as springboards to higher office, which can obscure the fact that once elected, commissioners can end up making important decisions over fundamental education policies. SFUSD witnessed a striking example of that this month when two leading members of the board, former president Matt Haney (who is running for District 6 Supervisor), and current vice president Stevon Cook, introduced a resolution to abolish the district's school assignment system, up until now long defended by the District, but always a source of stress for parents. 

Meanwhile, controversy over another District policy has gone unresolved: the adoption of a new math course sequence. 

What Happened to Eighth Grade Algebra?

Up until the fall of 2015, students took Algebra One during their Eighth Grade year – the last year of middle school.  With the new course sequence, Algebra One is taken in the freshman year of high school, with Geometry the next year, and Algebra Two in 11th grade.

If a student wants to explore higher math during high school, they will somehow have to navigate Pre-Calculus, Statistics, and Calculus in the time left. A “compression course" which combines Algebra Two and Pre-Calculus is available during the junior year, along with summer courses, but they’re not the District-recommended pathways.

The first class of high schoolers that will have gone completely through the new math course sequence are now entering 12th grade. But when parents talk about this issue, the focus is on eighth-grade algebra. It has become a defining, divisive issue over student achievement in the school system.

Algebra is an elementary stepping stone to higher mathematics; but research has shown it can also serve a "gatekeeper" for many students and, to varying degrees, an insurmountable barrier to further academic achievement. 

Remedying algebra’s reputation as an institutional barrier was a key driver behind the adoption of the Common Core standards for education in California and other states during the Obama administration. 

Common Core aims for an early introduction to algebra in middle school by emphasizing practical application of math fundamentals. By teaching basic math using practical examples rather than rote memorization, educators hope to better impart students with the abstract thinking skills they will eventually need to master algebra. Ideally, a more diverse range of students could then successfully navigate higher math. 

Most school districts in California have been taking a gradual approach towards the Common Core model for math education. Only two districts – San Francisco and Berkeley - have taken the comparatively radical step of phasing out eighth-grade algebra one in one fell swoop.

According to Brent Stephens, Chief Academic Officer at SFUSD, it was a necessary move to counter the increasing achievement issues the previous course structure was presenting:

“Part of what the District was looking to undo was the very high repeat rate among students who took either eighth- or ninth- grade algebra,” Stephen said. The data was clear: many students of color were being held back if they took algebra earlier. 

“We tried it both ways. We found among certain demographic groups that the failure rate could be as high as 50% in any given year, and that when they repeated algebra the second time around they didn't have much more luck,” he explained. “One year up to 48% of African-American students had to take eighth-grade algebra over again. What the new placement policy does, is create new courses, what we call Common Core Math six, seven, and eight, and then create a Common Core-aligned algebra class in the ninth grade, so that all SFUSD students can proceed through those four years.”

While the change already appears to have had significant positive outcomes in combating the District’s notorious demographic "achievement gap", there are persistent concerns from parents that it makes it more difficult for students who want to complete AP Calculus by their high school graduation—an important goal for those applying to the more competitive university STEM programs.

While the District has defended the policy in the press, parents have continued to register concerns through social media and various petitions. Inevitably, other local leaders, such as State Senator Scott Wiener and Supervisor Katy Tang, joined in their consternation. 

KQED development executive Michelle Parker is considered a frontrunner in the school board race. A former PTA president and co-founder of the San Francisco Parent PAC, her high-profile campaign has emphasized her record of parent advocacy and maintaining public accountability at the district. 

Parker has been following the math sequence issue since it was first introduced, and wrote an editorial for the Beacon last year outlining parent concerns. We asked her what she’s seen in the meantime: 

"A lot of the intention behind it—strengthening the foundations for students otherwise at risk of repeating courses—is really good. And we are seeing progress in that area,” Parker said. “But if we want to increase opportunities for all students, increase access, you need to expand learning opportunities, not limit them... it’s now much more challenging to get to Calculus by senior year…[instead of taking] algebra before high school, they encourage doubling up on math courses in freshman year.”

Her own family’s experience with that strategy has been stressful: “My son tried it because he wanted to explore architecture, he tried doubling up algebra and geometry freshman year - it was too much for him,” Parker explained. “They’re offering some options, like a summer geometry class, but what if your family can’t do that?”

A Political Variable

Not all candidates are as charitable as Parker. At least one candidate, former USF Law School Dean and Obama cabinet secretary John Trasvina, categorically opposes the new math sequence. 

Trasvina was one of the District’s first student representatives when he attended Lowell High School, and his mother was one of the District’s first bilingual teachers in junior high. He went on to become an attorney, and eventually President and General Counsel of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF). A policy initiative focusing on Latino education, similar to one currently aimed at African-American students, is a major part of his platform.

When asked about the math course changes, Trasvina said: “I will work to restore 8th grade Algebra. Saying ‘no’ to students who want to take and are ready for Algebra in middle school is the wrong way to close the achievement gap - and the wrong message from the District to college admissions officers and our graduates' future employers.  We need to strengthen preparation for all, not deny opportunities to some.”

Meanwhile, Gabriela Lopez, a fourth grade bilingual teacher at Flynn Elementary in the Mission District, is running for school board on a platform endorsed by many Progressive-branded political leaders in the City. She enthusiastically defended the new policy, saying: “The old sequence was antiquated and was not the product of our best thinking. Rather, curricular successes and failures all built on one another. This new sequence adoption gave the opportunity to clear that all away and start fresh, with the best research and math education we could direct to it.”

Most candidates have taken a nuanced position on the issue, with varying degrees of skepticism not so much over the merit of the policy, but how well it's being implemented, and how well the reasons behind it are being communicated to parents.

Another candidate, Allison Collins, has worked in and around public schools in the Bay Area for over 20 years as a teacher, and as a program and policy administrator, including at Oakland Unified, where she worked with current SFUSD Superintendent Vincent Matthews.

Supported mainly by labor and progressive groups, Collins has been also following implementation of the new math sequence from the beginning. 

"I think the overall policy is good and I support it. The questions are with implementation,” Collins explained. “Having worked at [SFUSD’s] central office, I know that sometimes District policies aren’t fully implemented. We can have the best policy in the world, but it's not implemented properly, it doesn't matter.

Regarding her own family’s reaction to the policy, Collins added: “My own kids are having a positive experience. It doesn't mean that others are. I think overall were seeing positive change but that doesn't mean anything if your kid is suffering.”

Parker also identified implementation and uniformity in course access across all schools in the District as the weak link. She argued for different approaches to address the equity concerns the policy intended to fix:

"The alternative isn't that simple as just offering algebra in eighth grade again,” Parker said. “You also have to improve implicit bias training, because what data we have seems to indicate that what pathway is most recommended by counselors seems to vary by school. That means messaging is inconsistent. There’s not enough diverse representation in our advanced math courses across the district. Period."

Phil Kim is a candidate with an education background from charter schools, having worked as a teacher and administrator at KIPP Bay Area Schools. Like Parker, his candidacy is supported largely by Moderate-branded politicians. He also has issues with the perceived lack of flexible pathways in the new curricula, and shares concerns with many other candidates regarding inadequate parent outreach.

“Most people have moved on to accept that Common Core State Standards (CCSS) are solid and rigorous. The standards, themselves, aren’t the problem,” Kim argued. “It’s clear in the rollout of CCSS 8th Grade Math that parents felt like they were in the dark. We have a lot of work to do with parent and family engagement, generally, and what partnership with families looks like in the classroom.”

“Anyone should be able to access AP courses if they’re ready for it,” Kim said. “It’s unreasonable to expect families to pay for summer school, for students to double up on courses, et cetera.”

Meanwhile, according to Stephens, one of the policy’s main goals appears well on its way to being met: 

“We do have some data that that stand out so far, that suggest to us that the policy is having the impact we want,” Stephens said. “For example, there's been a huge decrease in the number of students who are getting D's and F's in middle school math, like a 30% decrease. We've seen the number of students who have to repeat algebra, particularly African-American students, move from about 48% to 8%: a really dynamic shift in the number of kids who are able to clear that course.”

“Last year it appeared that we had 350 more students who as juniors were getting ready to take a fourth-year math course, and then we had the previous year,” Stephens added. “That was on the cusp of the implementation of the policy; so we’re curious to see how many actually did a role and what courses they took. We’ll have those answers sometime in October.” 

That means the public will finally see significant early findings on whether the District’s algebra policy is indeed the rising tide that will lift all boats—smack dab in the final weeks of this heated school board race. In the meantime, Parker and others continue to argue for more flexibility:

"It shouldn't just be the kids lucky enough to have parents who are either rich or plugged in to the system. We have to make sure all high schools are offering the same courses, and we have to think about math differently,” Parker said. “We could be coming up with different sequences for different career paths, like data science or financial management. If we were able to diversify our math curricula to that level, it might take a little pressure off of anybody who really needs to go to calculus. Not all students need to go to calculus, but the kids who want to should be able to."

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