Friday, January 22, 2010

Everybody hates Equations

Just say the word diversity in Wake County Public School System, North Carolina…and you’ll no doubt be met with rage. Just say the words diversity and Algebra together in Wake, and you’ll no doubt be met with confusion. If you live in Wake County, and read this blog, then you know diversity and Algebra are variables in a heated polynomial equation that nobody seems to understand or be able to solve. But let’s try….

First, let’s look at the existing equation. The data show certain students in diverse schools--all schools--are not getting access to 8th grade Algebra (top math track, rigorous math) despite being prepared to take it. So we have both variables: diverse, prepared students and Algebra classes in the same space. What’s the problem? The problem is that there are way more students prepared to succeed in rigorous math than there are teachers to teach it, so add that to the equation.

Oh, and then there are deeply entrenched beliefs that some students, because of their skin color or income, cannot do Algebra, so factor this in as well. But there is an additional variable that is not getting much play in the media—very pushy parents who want their children to get into the Algebra classes, but not anybody else’s children. This overlooked variable is having an exponential impact on what first seemed to be a simple addition problem involving diversity and Algebra. So looking at what is currently happening, the equation goes something like:
(Diversity) + (Algebra) - (Algebra Teachers)+(beliefs + assumptions) x 1000 (pushy parents) = Total Freakin' Disaster

In light of the recent media attention to this equation (added to people’s fears about going to jail), there is now a great deal of interest in rewriting the formula and coming up with an altogether new equation for diversity and Algebra. Generally, equations are solved by isolating the variable. Next, you have to undo whatever has been done to it. To write the right equation involving diversity and Algebra, it takes isolating key variables and undoing the untruths attached to them. So let’s isolate and undo….

Diversity. It is a good thing. Enough said. Every child is equally valuable, but the reality is, in our current system of public education, not every child is treated with equal value. So until the public education moral compass catches up to the truth that every child is equally valuable and capable, strategic diversity efforts are essential.

Algebra. The outcomes for students who take 8th grade Algebra are altogether different than the outcomes for those students who do not. Students are tracked into different math courses beginning in 6th grade, and this determines who is prepared to take Algebra in the 8th grade. Tracking is more strongly correlated to race and income than to ability. Minority and low-income students are not getting access, despite being prepared and fully capable of success in rigor.

Rigor. It doesn’t mean hard. It means good instruction and good curriculum. Anyone can excel in rigor with the proper foundation, and that foundation is taught, not genetic. Why in the world, when the outcomes are so much better for students who get access to rigor, is that not provided to every student?

Tracking. The current system of tracking is setting students on a course in 6th grade that is irrevocable and keeps many students from getting a meaningful education that leads to future academic and professional opportunities. To put it bluntly, students are academically being forced to the back of the bus, based on race and income.

Teachers. There are not enough teachers prepared to teach rigorous math. In the absence of enough resources, opportunities are only being given to some students, students with…
Very pushy parents. Parent involvement is a major factor in the current educational “Total Freakin’ Disaster.” But lack or Parent Involvement by certain subgroups is not the critical problem. The much bigger problem is the volume of over-involved parents who, while gaining access to rigor for their own children, invest equal effort in making sure that other people’s children do not get that same access. And their effort works. In diverse situations, these very pushy parents hold considerable blame for the outcomes of minority and low-income students.

Variables isolated and undone…so back to the rewriting the diversity + Algebra equation. A logical and moral culture could easily see the ideal equation is:
Diversity + Algebra + High Expectations + Prepared Teachers –Tracking – Very pushy parent control = Rigorous Education for all.

Maybe if we had been teaching all students rigorous math all along, somebody could figure out this equation--one that would basically solve itself.