Palo Alto math teachers oppose higher math graduation requirements
By Sharon Noguchi firstname.lastname@example.org
Against the resolute push for higher academic standards geared toward preparing students for college, the Palo Alto High School math department has drawn a line in the sand.
Don't prepare all students for University of California entrance, the math faculty argues, because not all students can master quadratic equations and logarithmic functions.
Their counterpush against raising graduation standards to include Algebra II has angered educators and parents who believe schools, including districts like Palo Alto with strong college-going cultures, are failing poor and minority students by expecting too little of them.
The parents point to startling statistics: In the Palo Alto and Gunn high schools' 2011 class of seniors, only 15 percent of African-Americans and 40 percent of Latinos completed the prerequisites for the University of California and California State University with a C or better. That compares with 79.5 percent districtwide meeting those so-called A-G requirements.
The A-G requirements includes two years of a foreign language (increasingly only Spanish is on offer in California), which is hard on African-American youths because foreign language courses are hard in general, and blacks have so little interest in Spanish. And it demands Algebra, Geometry, and Algebra II, which is a great idea for Lake Wobegon H.S., but Algebra II is a big hurdle for the 49.99% of young people who are below average in intelligence.
"It is disgraceful," said Kim Bomar, a parent of two Palo Alto elementary children, "in this district where some kids are doing so extremely well and the resources are so extremely rich."
Other districts, including San Jose Unified, East Side Union and San Francisco Unified, set A-G as the default curriculum, and in Palo Alto the administration had recommended the district follow suit. The school board is set to take up the issue in the spring. But Palo Alto High's math teachers oppose the recommendation. Yes, bump up the graduation requirement to three years of math, they argue, but don't require students to master Algebra II — because they say not everyone can. ...
Palo Alto High math department chair Radu Toma said critics confuse standards with achievement. "They make the assumption just by setting the bar up there, the bar will be reached," he said. "I'm not saying it's impossible; it's a big gamble."
The risk, he said, is that courses will be devaluated.
Mr. Toma grew up in Communist Romania, so he's heard enough Grand Plans for one lifetime.
He said other districts' A-G standards aren't examples to follow. In San Jose Unified, which has had required A-G courses for 10 years, only 42 percent of seniors — compared with Palo Alto's 80 percent — last year completed them with a C or better, as UC requires. Students who aren't on track to complete the requirement may take different courses, spokeswoman Karen Fuqua said.
Toma said that while students elsewhere may pass Algebra II, 45 percent of CSU and UC students must take remedial math. That doesn't happen with Palo Alto graduates, he said. "When our kids finish with Algebra II, we are not pretending they completed Algebra II." Teachers, he said, are doing everything possible to support students in achieving their personal best in math.
The brouhaha escalated last fall, with the circulation of a letter signed by all but one of the math department's teachers, arguing against adoption of the A-G standards. "Diluting the standards in our regular lane to basic benchmarks, which might allow every student to pass Algebra II, would end up hurting the district's reputation and, implicitly, all of our students."
The letter also took a swipe at students who fail: "Most of our students are fortunate to come from families where education matters and parents have the means and will to support and guide their children in tandem with us, their teachers. Not all of them."
On Sunday, Toma said, "I am sorry that a couple of paragraphs in our letter that were quoted out of context led some community members who do not know our department, our program and our results, to doubt our commitment to all our students," Toma said.
Toma said last week that he did not mean to insult families, and said he believes all parents care about their children's success.
The letter provoked outrage. "It was unacceptable. It was racially insensitive," said Tremaine Kirkman, president of the Student Equity Action Network at Palo Alto High. His group provides tutoring and helps with college applications. In Palo Alto, he said, "no matter how well you understand math, it's such a fast pace you need a tutor to survive."
On the first day of calculus, he said his teacher told the class: "There's no way to switch down a lane; if you can't keep up, you have to get a tutor." Palo Alto high schools have five lanes of math.
In light of the math department's opposition, the Palo Alto school board postponed a decision on A-G. Emmett D. Carson, president of the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, called the delay "disheartening" and suggested the board risks damaging students' chances in life.
The larger problem, Kirkman said, is that Palo Alto schools track some students early on toward failure, including placing a disproportionate number of black and Latino children into special education.
Toma said the department would support adding another year of math — geometry — to Palo Alto's graduation requirement. In the San Mateo Union High School District, which requires three years of math, 68 percent completed it last year, Curriculum Director Cynthia Clark said.
That is doable, Toma said; adding Algebra II isn't. "The educational system in our country is littered with grandiose initiatives or policies that failed because the bar was set unrealistically high," he said. "Making this huge jump is not going to better our kids' math education."