San Francisco Middle Schools No Longer Teaching 'Algebra 1'

Two girls spend time at a library studying math and doing homework.  (MC Quinn )

Justin Van Zandt is a busy dad.

He has five kids, all under 18 years old, and holds down a demanding full-time job. But that doesn’t stop him from spending all his free time teaching and tutoring his kids.

“I want my kids to do as well as possible,” says Van Zandt. “I want them all to graduate college and have good jobs. If I work hard as a parent, that’s going to give them an edge.”

Lately, Van Zandt has been focusing his time on his 11-year-old daughter, Valentina.

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She’s a straight "A" student, plays four instruments and is fluent in Spanish.

She'll be in seventh grade this fall, and her dad is determined to get her into Lowell High School, San Francisco’s highest-performing public high school.

So this summer, Valentina has been working hard to hone her math skills.

An algebraic equation is displayed on whiteboard.
An algebraic equation is displayed on whiteboard. (James Lee)

“[Math] used to come fairly easy to me, but now it’s getting a little bit challenging,” says Valentina. “[My dad] teaches a lot, but he doesn't always have a whole lot of patience.”

Van Zandt admits he has high expectations for his children. He also has high expectations for San Francisco Unified, which is why he and many parents like him were outraged when they learned Algebra 1 will no longer be taught in middle school under Common Core, the state’s new academic standards.

Instead, all students will have to wait until their freshman year in high school to take the class.

Valentina says delaying Algebra 1 is going to hurt gifted students because some classes are “too easy” or “aren't very challenging” for high-achieving students.

The shift to now require Algebra 1 in high school may seem like a subtle change, but it hits on a deep-rooted debate over when advanced math should be introduced, and to which students.

Some say Algebra 1 at a young age causes students to flounder.

Others say students will be unprepared for tough college-prep courses in high school if they don’t take Algebra 1 early.

Districts like Los Angeles and Oakland are going to allow some high-achieving kids to go ahead and take algebra in middle school.

But not San Francisco Unified.

For years, all eighth-graders had to take Algebra 1. The vast majority, however, either failed or did poorly in the subject.

“Those students are now in a cycle of failure,” says Lizzy Hull Barnes, mathematics program administrator for the district.

Eighth grade algebra students study at Presidio Middle School, a San Francisco Unified School District school, in 2011.
Eighth grade algebra students study at Presidio Middle School, a San Francisco Unified School District school, in 2011. (Lenny Gonzalez/MindShift)

Under the new standards, the district is no longer taking a “drill and kill” approach to math. Instead, algebraic concepts will be woven into all math courses, beginning in kindergarten.

The goal is to get students fully prepared for Math 8, a hybrid pre-algebra class in eighth grade focusing on how linear functions and equations all fit together.

Students will then take a deep dive into Algebra 1 as high school freshman, which will also include transformational geometry and angle relationships.

Hull Barnes says exposing all students to high-quality math instruction is a social justice issue for SFUSD.

District officials say the controversial practice of tracking students -- or separating them based on talent and ability -- is simply wrong.

Math is now supposed to be more rigorous and engaging at all levels, regardless of the students' ability.

“What it means to be good in math is no longer about answer-getting and speed,” Hull Barnes says. “To be truly deeply proficient in math, you have to defend your reasoning and understand how a mathematical situation would apply in the real world. That's a very significant shift.”

This summer, San Francisco math teachers have been working hard to figure out how to implement Algebra 1 under the new standards because now teachers will have to engage students at all levels.

Before, most students didn’t talk in their Algebra 1 class unless a teacher called on them for an answer.

The course was also “packed” with content, says eighth-grade teacher Vriana Kempster, forcing educators to “move pretty quickly” and “skip the parts about when you would use those skills.”

Now students will be asked to tackle a math assignment in small groups so they can discuss, interact and problem-solve together in a more methodical manner.

But is this the best thing for the super-smart kids?

A growing group of San Francisco parents don’t believe so.

They say that not allowing their children to take Algebra 1 in middle school is going to significantly slow down their progress, and they’ll wind up helping other students in class.

They’re now pressuring the district to create more options so they don't have to choose between private school or paying extra for advanced math classes.

“It’s very disappointing to me that our education system is really starting to be this cookie-cutter approach,” says Melody Hernandez, whose 13-year-old son will be in  eighth grade this year. “It’s not feasible. … I really don’t want [my son] to lose his engagement in school because it’s not moving at a fast enough pace for him.”

The California Report’s education reporter, Ana Tintocalis, will be taking a closer look at how Common Core Academic Standards are transforming education across the state as students gear up for the 2015-2016 school year .  

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