Calif. Laws Shift Gears on Algebra, Textbooks

By Erik W. Robelen — October 23, 2012 7 min read
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New laws in California have set the state on a course for some potentially significant changes to the curriculum, including a measure that revisits the matter of teaching Algebra 1 in 8th grade and another that revamps the state’s textbook-adoption process and hands districts greater leeway in choosing instructional materials.

The algebra-related legislation, in particular, has been the subject of considerable debate. State officials say it aims to help clear up confusion among school districts about state expectations in the 8th grade with the Common Core State Standards, but critics contend that it will effectively end the state’s long-standing embrace of Algebra 1 at that grade level.

At issue are additions the state made before adopting the common core, essentially approving two sets of 8th grade math standards.

Shortly after Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat, signed the legislation last month, Michael W. Kirst, the president of the state school board, issued a statement addressing the question head on.

“This bill will not, as some critics claim, eliminate Algebra 1 as an option in grade 8,” he said, noting that the state intends to provide “two viable pathways” for that grade. “Placement of students in math courses based on their readiness is still a local decision and should remain as such.”

The textbook measure, meanwhile, ends a budget-driven moratorium on adopting new instructional materials, and makes changes to that process, including stating explicitly that districts are free to spend state dollars on materials not on the state-approved list.

Michael W. Kirst, the president of the California state board of education, emphasizes that student placement in algebra remains a local decision for school districts.

Glen W. Thomas, a former state secretary of education under Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Mr. Brown’s Republican predecessor, praised the measure, saying it converts state adoption into “more of a Consumer Reports for districts.”

He explained: “Districts can use the list that the state develops ... or they can select their own [materials], but if they do it themselves, they have to use a majority of teachers on the [selection] committee and ensure there is a significant degree of alignment with the common core.”

But Ze’ev Wurman, a former federal education official under President George W. Bush, is sharply critical of both new laws.

The textbook legislation “essentially dismantled any serious quality assurance of California textbooks ... and is full of confused or confusing language,” said Mr. Wurman, a Silicon Valley executive who served on a state commission that evaluated the suitability of the common standards for California.

In any case, Jay Diskey, the executive director of the Association of American Publishers’ schools division, said he’s seeing moves to hand districts greater flexibility in choosing textbooks not just in California, but also other states, including Indiana and Texas.

In Indiana, a law signed last year ended the state’s textbook-adoption process altogether. The state will still provide a list of recommended instructional materials, but districts will only be bound by it for reading.

‘Grandfather’s Oldsmobile’

Both pieces of California legislation come as the state gears up to implement the common core, which all but four states have adopted. A state panel began meeting recently to craft curricular guidance for districts on the standards.

State officials say they were eager to ensure instructional materials would be available to districts in a timely manner. In fact, the measure accelerates the adoption process significantly.

At the same time, officials and analysts say the state’s difficult financial situation and the advent of new standards in English/language arts and math endorsed by so many states call for a rethinking of the textbook process. (California adopts textbooks only for grades K-8, not high school.)

“It is a big change for California,” Mr. Kirst said of the legislation in an interview. “It’s not your grandfather’s Oldsmobile. That [bill] really rewrote our authority.”

He pointed in particular to the language freeing districts to spend state textbook aid on materials not on the state list.

B. Teri Burns, a senior director at the California School Boards Association, said she welcomes the emphasis on “local decisionmaking” in the new law.

“As we move to the common core, certainly we’ll see more materials that can come from any state and be used here, which should bring down prices and bring up alternatives,” she said.

Mr. Diskey from the publishers’ group said he’s generally pleased with the legislation, especially because it shows the “first sign of life” for textbook adoptions in California after the process was stalled for several years amid the state’s budget crunch.

“It kick-starts an adoption process for math materials to the transition to the common core,” he said.

But there’s a catch for publishers, who now must pay for the state reviews, a provision Mr. Diskey said his group opposed but recognized as a necessity to ensure passage.

“Opposition to this bill for almost anything could have endangered a [textbook] adoption,” he said.

Separately, under California legislation approved last year, officials are expected later this fall to bring before the state board for approval a list of supplemental materials to “bridge the gap” between existing instructional resources and the common core. Those offerings, however, will not be part of an official adoption, but simply a set of state-recommended materials.

Bill Honig, a former California schools chief who heads a state panel on instructional materials, said the state recognizes a “major shift occurring in materials right now.”

He said: “They’re not just books anymore; there’s print material, digital material. Many times you don’t get the total of what you’re going to use from one publisher.”

But Mr. Honig acknowledged the freedom districts get to choose under the textbook measure Gov. Brown signed last month comes with risks to quality.

“That is a legitimate concern,” he said. “One of the benefits of state adoption is that there is quality control, and it is a complex procedure.”

Two Pathways

Meanwhile, the bill addressing algebra was needed, Mr. Kirst said, because of the state action in 2010 approving two sets of 8th grade math standards: one based on the common core, the other with that content plus a raft of extra topics identified as Algebra 1.

“This creation of two potentially conflicting standards at a single grade level has created confusion in our school districts and has created a void in available textbooks/instructional materials aligned to state standards,” he said in a statement.

The new law permits the state board to remove the additional algebra content. Mr. Kirst said it also allows the state to clarify that it will provide two course pathways, one for students ready for Algebra 1 at grade 8 and another for those who take it a year later.

At the same time, Mr. Kirst emphasized that the common-core math standards for 8th grade already include some algebra.

But Mr. Wurman called the legislation “a direct attack on teaching algebra in grade 8.”

He said, “Kirst can claim that he has no plans to eliminate it, but it is not a matter of his plans—it is a matter of law.”

Mr. Wurman said the bill’s dictate that the state follow “one set of standards” for each grade will mean the California assessment is pegged to the common core for 8th grade. And he expects that will lead many schools, especially low-achieving schools that serve large populations of poor and minority students, to stop offering Algebra 1 in middle school.

California has joined the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, which is developing tests aligned with the standards.

Mr. Honig said the new tests will be flexible to meet different skill levels.

“Everyone will take the regular common-core assessment,” he said. “But what it’s going to do, Smarter Balanced, it’s going to be adaptive, it can go up as much as two grades or down as much as two grades, so they will have a spectrum of algebra [tested].”

Mr. Kirst said many California students who were ill-prepared for algebra were placed in the subject and were unsuccessful.

State policy over time has created incentives for more students to take algebra in 8th grade, and participation levels have skyrocketed over the past decade. More than 60 percent of California students now take it at that grade level, Mr. Honig said.

Data from a report that Mr. Kirst, a professor emeritus of education at Stanford University, co-authored show that in 2010, 46 percent of 8th graders scored “proficient” or above on the state Algebra 1 test, while 29 percent scored “below or far below basic.” Yet the study said 4½ times as many economically disadvantaged 8th graders scored proficient or above in 2010 as in 2003.

John Mockler, a former executive director of the state school board, worries that the state’s plans may undermine the progress it has made in getting more black and Latino students to take and succeed in algebra in 8th grade.

“Some of us are concerned that we’ll go back to the old days when schools said, ‘Those kids aren’t ready for algebra,’ ” he said.

Mr. Honig said he expects some changes in Algebra 1 enrollment as the common core becomes the “default” approach for districts.

“This two-path policy is trying to keep the ones that want to accelerate, and then beef up the other course that everybody else takes,” he said. “But every child is going to get a good hunk of algebra, no matter what.”

A version of this article appeared in the October 24, 2012 edition of Education Week as Calif. Laws Shift Gears on Algebra, Textbooks


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