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Forum eyes causes, solutions for inequalities in math education

Report points to prevalence of 'math misplacement' in Bay Area schools

The California Legislative Black Caucus kicked off a statewide town hall tour on math misplacement, the practice of putting students of color in the wrong level math classes, in East Palo Alto on Tuesday, Sept. 30.

The forum, hosted by the Silicon Valley Community Foundation at Costano Elementary School, brought together state legislators, Bay Area educators and others to discuss the issue of unequal mathematics education, particularly for African American, Latino and Pacific Islander students.

"The issue of inequalities in math education, when talking about black and Latino students, is an issue that impacts all of California," said Ravenswood City School District Superintendent Gloria Hernandez. "California's ability as a leading economic engine to compete in the global economy is negatively impacted when many of our state's own residents aren't provided the opportunity to compete here at home."

Tuesday's forum was born out of a 2013 report called "Held Back: Addressing Misplacement of 9th Grade Students in Bay Area School Math Classes," that offers data showing the prevalence of math misplacement in San Mateo and Santa Clara counties, the legal liability school districts could face for math misplacement and concrete recommendations for solutions. The report was issued by the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights (LCCR) of the San Francisco Bay Area with support from the Silicon Valley Community Foundation.

"Held Back" cites a 2010 study that looked at math placement in nine school districts in San Mateo and Santa Clara counties, finding that nearly 65 percent of students who took algebra I in eighth grade – often considered a gatekeeper class to success in high school and college – were forced to repeat algebra in ninth grade. They were not required to repeat the class not because of their academic achievement: More than 60 percent of the students scored proficient or advanced on the California State Test (CST) in algebra, and more than 42 percent had received a B- or higher grade in the eighth-grade class.

The study also found that disproportionate numbers of African American, Latino and Pacific Islander students were forced to repeat algebra I in freshman year. While 52.6 percent of African American students took algebra I in eighth grade (in the 2006-07 year), only 17.8 percent of African American students were enrolled in geometry in ninth grade. Similarly, half of all Latino students took algebra I their last year of middle school, but only 16 percent moved on to enroll in geometry in ninth grade.

"Think about running a race, running as hard as you can, passing the finish line and seeing everybody behind you and being told by somebody, 'I don't really think you won the race,'" said Silicon Valley Community Foundation President Emmett Carson. "'We're going to have you -- just you, not the other people who ran the race -- go back and run the race again with some other people because we don't think you really won the race.' That's what we've been doing to these young people."

Carson said that this practice happens in subject areas other than math, but math is the "single most important predictor of college success."

"The University of California and the California State University system have a set of standards that they want for kids coming in for a certain level of math proficiency. If you have to repeat your eighth-grade math course in ninth grade, you are derailed," Carson said. "You are off track from meeting those requirements to get to college. And now you are not only off track, your family's future, your lifetime earning, everything about you changes because of the decision that happened to you in eighth grade and that ninth-grade placement."

Everyone who spoke at Tuesday's forum pointed to low teacher expectations and unconscious biases as the causes for math misplacement.

"I'm where I am today because some teacher said, 'I believe in you,'" Carson said, "but some other kids aren't where I am because a teacher said, 'I don't believe in you,' and held them back. And it becomes that arbitrary.

"Teacher discretion ought to be used to push you forward. But discretion should never hold you back when the objective data says you earned it," Carson added.

Oren Sellstrom, legal director of the San Francisco Bay Area Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights, said that such discretion, or bias, is often unconscious. Under disparate impact discrimination law, such discrimination – even though it is unintentional – is considered illegal.

Disparate impact law is often used to look at institutional discrimination, such as a city or school district policy that has a disproportionate impact on communities of color and cannot be justified.

"These practices are unjustified," Sellstrom said.

Sellstrom's organization has started to look at school districts in San Mateo and Santa Clara counties to identify what placement practices are most problematic. He said there are three: When there is no written policy to guide placement decisions; when placement relies at least in part on subjective factors, primarily teacher recommendations (when unconscious biases can come into play); and when there is little to no monitoring or accountability for the process.

He advocates for establishing clear, written policy; placing students based on objective factors, such as test scores and grades; and implementing ongoing monitoring and accountability.

A senate resolution introduced Aug. 19 by the chair of the black caucus, Senator Holly Mitchell, who represents District 26 in Southern California, also calls for these changes statewide.

The Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights has asked various school districts to voluntarily comply with such changes, but those who don't could face civil rights complaints, Sellstrom said.

The Sequoia Union High School District has set an example for how to remedy the issue of math misplacement. After internally analyzing ninth-grade math data in 2011 and finding evidence of math misplacement, the district revised its placement procedures and implemented a more objective policy by the spring of 2012.

"As superintendent, I wholeheartedly believe that not only are we on the front line of the challenge, we are also a model for how to begin resolving this complex issue," Gloria Hernandez said.

The forum also heard from Marlyn Bussey, a longtime Sequoia district counselor who is now the pastor of a church in San Mateo. She told the caucus and audience that after reading the 2013 "Held Back" report, she launched various efforts to help alleviate the problem of math misplacement in her community. The church hosted a one-week math boot camp with 20 students, held mandatory parent empowerment workshops and brought in local students to tutor others on math twice a week.

"These kids want to learn; they want to be ready for school and our goal is to get every last one of them ready for high school geometry at best and algebra at a minimum so when they walk in the door, they're ready to use the first day of high school as preparation for their first day of college," Bussey said.

Comments

5 people like this
Posted by Ridiculous
a resident of Barron Park
on Oct 1, 2014 at 11:49 am

[Portion removed.]

Repeating a math class does not "derail" anyone. What determines your access to college is your SAT scores, and SATs are mostly 9th- and 10th-grade math. My daughter didn't like math in high school and was definitely in the "lower" courses. She did well on the SAT and in college chose a math-based major.

Kids do not mature mathematically at the early ages this article (and the people quoted in it) imply. They mature late teens or early 20s. Not only that, it's a misconception that repeating a math class implies failure. I know world-class mathematicians who, at some point, failed or almost failed a particular math subject and had to repeat it.

The kids who do best in college, and life, are those who work hard to achieve mastery, not those who are constantly told "the world is unfair to you and owes you something."


Like this comment
Posted by Bob
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 1, 2014 at 12:27 pm

> "Held Back" cites a 2010 study that looked at math
> placement in nine school districts in San Mateo and
> Santa Clara counties, finding that nearly 65 percent
> of students who took algebra I in eighth grade – often
> considered a gatekeeper class to success in high school
> and college – were forced to repeat algebra in ninth grade.
> They were not required to repeat the class not because of
> their academic achievement: More than 60 percent of the
> students scored proficient or advanced on the
> California State Test (CST) in algebra, and more
> than 42 percent had received a B- or higher grade
> in the eighth-grade class.

The CST/STAR Math tests scores are available to the public. But grades received by students are not published in the same way the as the CST/STAR tests scores are. Also generally not available is the repeat rates for students in schools, for classes like Algebra I. It’s very difficult to know what’s going on when the only window on the situation is a “report” written by a special-interest group that is now almost five years old.

One could easily ask: “Why would a school want to back up its math classes by forcing people with a B average to retake that class?” The claim of “institutional racism” clearly seems to be the only answer provided by the people pushing this agenda.

It’s a shame that they are not also pushing more transparency into the school grading policies. Obviously, forcing students to retake courses is not in the public’s interest, nor the student's interest. It is not the best way to spend our money. So, finding ways to mandate open access to the academic performance of every school in California would seem to be far more important than to flog some virtually impossible to prove claim that some students are being singled out by teachers because of their race. If this were true, having publicly accessible data about course retake rates, called out by school, grade and teacher would help understand what is really going on here.


5 people like this
Posted by EPAMom
a resident of East Palo Alto
on Oct 1, 2014 at 12:32 pm

My son worked hard to get an A in Algebra in 8th grade, yet was put into Algebra again in 9th. He did not understand why this happened, and no justification was offered by the school. Our plan was to have him take Calculus in 12th grade, which would have been impossible, except that he transferred schools and took a year of math in 6 weeks of summer school to get back to where he would have been. Yes, he got another A in Algebra - which he didn't need. And the message we came away with was that the school was disorganized and unhelpful.
"Ridiculous", not every child is like your daughter. Some have higher aspirations in math and don't benefit from being derailed. Some might come away with the message that something was wrong with them, or that someone at the school thought there was. High school is hard enough without the administration adding to the issues.


1 person likes this
Posted by Bob
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 1, 2014 at 12:58 pm

> My son worked hard to get an A in Algebra in 8th grade,
> yet was put into Algebra again in 9th. He did not understand
> why this happened, and no justification was offered by the school.

@EPA-MOM: Thanks for sharing. However, it’s a shame you did not demand an answer from the school in writing about its decision to force your son to retake a course that a grade of A should have said your son demonstrated mastery of the subject. An answer in writing, or even a failure to respond to your letter (sent by certified mail) would have helped you to force this issue up the food chain.


Without more information, unfortunately, your story is only anecdotal. If this is an issue in the EPA schools, then you, and other parents, need to start putting a case together, and get this issue before the school board, and perhaps the San Mateo County Civil Grand Jury. You might even get lucky, and find some local lawyers who will look into this matter, pro bono.


1 person likes this
Posted by Misleading Math?
a resident of Menlo Park
on Oct 1, 2014 at 1:32 pm

Theses stats looked wrong to me so I calculated the percentage of students retaking algebra using the following assumptions:

1. No student already in honors algebra or above moved down to algebra
2. The decrease of pre-algebra % in 8th and 9th grades represents students moving up to algebra
3. The remaining percentage of students in algebra represents the % of students retaking algebra in the 9th grade.

Based on those assumptions the percentages of students retaking algebra in 9th grade is:

White = 79.9%
African Am = 77.9%
Latino = 78.1%
Asian = 27.2%

Example using White: 60.1% of students in 9th grade albebra - 13.3% that moved up from pre-algebra = 46.8% of total students taking algebra that did not take pre-algebra in 8th grade. Divided by 58.6% that took algebra in 8th grade = 79.9% repeating algebra.

Not what you expected?


3 people like this
Posted by more stats?
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Oct 1, 2014 at 2:21 pm

@Riduclous, this isn't about "math maturity" or any other erroneous argument. It's about making sure that all children are treated equally regardless of color. You can't say that students of color need to repeat math while other students don't. If that is what the stats show.

Now MM's results are more interesting but require a rebuttal to confirm where he has gone wrong...


2 people like this
Posted by Great expectations
a resident of Juana Briones School
on Oct 1, 2014 at 7:06 pm

From kindergarten to 12th grade, many of our students of color are subjected to teachers who have very low expectations of their ability in math and other subjects. It's certainly not just algebra. Don't delude yourself by thinking it's just about parents whining that life owes their child something. It's about having one ineffective teacher stunting math growth. If a child endures back to back years of ineffective teachers, it can be catastrophic to achievement. At every Palo Alto school, some teachers are more effective than others, tough to argue that reality.


2 people like this
Posted by Bob
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 1, 2014 at 7:13 pm

> From kindergarten to 12th grade, many of our students of color are subjected to
> teachers who have very low expectations of their ability in math and other subjects.

And you know this how? No doubt there are some teachers that have low expectations--but just how many are there in reality? Can you provide a percentage of the 300,000+ teachers in California that demonstrate this sort of view towards any/all of their students?



1 person likes this
Posted by observation
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 3, 2014 at 2:11 pm

Our experience has been that the adoption of Everyday Math was such a disaster for kids who like and excel at math, that many parents simply tutored those kids outside of school. This changes abruptly in middle school, where the program is more traditional, and those who were tutored end up in a more advanced cohort and and given more advanced work. There don't seem to be any mechanisms to prevent the ruts kids inevitably end up in. The kids who could be in advanced math but don't know their way around the study skills they need to show they belong there, or who could be in advanced math with a little basic math practice catch up after EDM, are simply left to sink or swim, and I've witnessed this, often they sink. Teachers don't have full-time aides - or any aides it seems like - anymore, so kids who could blossom from just a little extra support languish instead.

I'm guessing students in traditionally disadvantaged minorities are more likely to be impacted by institutional failings like that, but everyone could be.

There's this huge disconnect between what's going on in math in the elementary schools and what starts happening in middle school, and it's like no one is even talking to each other. Kids end up falling through the cracks, and they are big cracks.


3 people like this
Posted by Teacher of BB + FBB
a resident of another community
on Oct 3, 2014 at 4:24 pm

I am a math person. I always have been, and I always will be. Are you ready for the truth? I am a high school teacher. I believe in all of my students. They all have the mental capacity to learn and grow. The majority of my students are everything but white (mainly Hispanic). Now, why is that? Everyone is asking that question, and it is a vastly important one.

Why is it that so many Hispanics are retaking Algebra again and again and again (10th, sometimes 11th grade too)? Well, why don't you stop to ask these students? You put so much riding on the teachers and the programs, but have you thought about talking to the vast majority of students that these programs affect? If you talk to my students when I first get them (which I do every time), they will tell you that they a) don't like math, b) aren't good at math, c) don't like this f***ing school, or d) don't give a f***. Now, the first two are definitely a message thing, and yes, we can blame the community for these. However, the last two are more troubling. Not to pull race, but what percent of white students would give the answers of c or d? I would guarantee a lower amount. Why is that? I have no freaking clue.

The main point here is that we, in high school, are seeing the huge gap between students upon entrance. We then get blamed for having a racist, tracking system, but how else are we to teach the pre-algebra skills that the students (mostly Hispanic) missed prior to high school?

The main point that we all need to face is the students' mentality about school. Almost all of my students come to school every day. When you ask them why, they are not sure. However, they do not come prepared to be at school (i.e. they do not have materials, or they come thinking that school is all about talking and waiting for answers to life's smallest mysteries). When there is such a discrepancy in the message that kids have about why they go to school, no wonder they mess around and thus don't learn enough to move on.

In this area, there was a giant push for college readiness, starting with 8th grade Algebra 1. Almost all of the 8th graders from all of the feeder schools took it, meaning that just about every single 9th grader who showed up for Algebra 1 was repeating it. This is not a problem at the high school level, and you can't really blame the middle schools for just complying with the demands of groups like this forum who are pushing for AP classes for under-represented ethnicities.

Again, the problem is the attitude the kids have, and when it's all about them, with no care for others, they are not going to succeed in school, let alone "boring" math class.

I am not a racist, I am a realist. The attitudes of the majority of the white kids I see are dead on: Respect and Perseverance. The attitudes of the majority of my students (who happen to be Hispanic) are all wrong: No sense of respect to teachers, let alone their peers, and no ability to persevere through their lives.

I hate the education gap so much. It bothers me constantly as I watch it grow wider and wider with each new piece of legislation (NCLB and now CC). Until you switch the culture, there will be no academic switch. Stop focusing on the teachers and schools. Start focusing on the students themselves. All YOU are doing is continually dropping out the floor to raise the ceiling, and we have already passed the point where the floor is too far below the ceiling...


2 people like this
Posted by village fool
a resident of another community
on Oct 3, 2014 at 9:51 pm

@Teacher of BB + FBB,
I am just a fool. I always have been, and I always will be.

Having said that, may I ask if you have ever walked in your students' shoes before they came your way?

May I ask it is possible that your students' responses reflect their sense that the "system" has given up on them, that most do not care?

May I ask if it is possible that your students are not as dumb as they state, and the responses you hear are derived from their trenchant understandings and observations that those who have more will always get more? more attention? more resources?

If any of the above is possible, please, remember that your students come your way after being subject or witnessing (or both) to incident after incident that had them come to those grim conclusions and statements you listed. Please remember that those "life experiences" took place at a very young age, quite possibly leaving scars which are very hard to heal.

If any of the above is possible, may I suggest to consider the possibility that even you, the math person, could have developed such attitude? That is if life had "control group" and you could have walked most of your young life before High School being subject to your students' experiences and observations.









3 people like this
Posted by Carlos
a resident of Green Acres
on Oct 3, 2014 at 11:57 pm

Teacher of BB + FBB,
You have explained it very well. I can relate to all of this because I grew up w/ students like the ones you described.

Unfortunately we live in a time when people try to be politically correct and your explanation is simply not digestible to many of those in our community. This issue will not go away until people start taking some personal responsibility for their own decisions. So easy to blame the system, perceived racism and other external factors when we don't succeed because of bad personal choices.


1 person likes this
Posted by teacher
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 4, 2014 at 6:33 pm

@Teacher of BB and FBB,

As a teacher I am appalled at what you wrote. I also assume that your students feel your vibe all day long in the class. Have you ever mandated tutorial or after school and asked them why they feel the way they do for c and d? If they are that disruptive maybe you don't have control in your class? Or maybe they are feeding off of what you gave them after the first time you handed back their F and pulled your attention to your "respect and perseverance" kids. Gross.


1 person likes this
Posted by village fool
a resident of another community
on Oct 4, 2014 at 8:43 pm

@teacher - thank you. I second.

These issues are not disconnected from all that became known during the past couple of years: secret meetings, unanimous decision to challenge to OCR etc.
Who knows what we do not know?

Those are part of the reasons that had me post an open address to the four PAUSD Board candidate who stated clearly that they oppose the PAUSD Board decision to challenge the OCR.
I posted a plea calling the four candidates to withdrew the PAUSD Board race and unite as outsiders, and work for all the children. I asked the four to become a "check" (checks and balances)

[Portion removed.]


1 person likes this
Posted by teacher
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 4, 2014 at 10:25 pm

@village fool,

As one who gets these students in another subject matter I can attest from some of their first hand testimonials that some of these students are on the receiving end of teachers like BB and FBB every day. Shameful.


1 person likes this
Posted by teacher
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 4, 2014 at 10:33 pm

One more point: The depth of this person's disconnect to perhaps why the MAJORITY of her classroom might not want to "persevere" is a testimonial to her teaching. Maybe not textbook pedagogy, but his or her daily grind humanity. Racism? Too smart and well read for that I'm sure. No. Stereotype and closet judgements glaring enough to be put on a public forum that probably are passive aggressive in their classroom? Would bet on it.


Like this comment
Posted by teacher
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 4, 2014 at 10:38 pm

Clarification: I have no idea the gender of this teacher. Irrelevant anyway.


Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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