COMET • Vol. 7, No. 04 – 1 February 2006


(1) Los Angeles Times Series on High School Dropouts: “The Vanishing Class”


This week, the Los Angeles Times presents a special 4-part series, “The Vanishing Class,” on the growing high school dropout problem.  “Students drastically limit their prospects by dropping out of high school. To understand why so many do, six Times reporters and two photographers spent eight months studying Birmingham High School in Van Nuys.”  Readers are invited to share their insights, as well as contribute questions and personal experiences with the Times reporters at

The titles of the articles in this series are as follows:

Jan. 29:  “Back to Basics: Why Does High School Fail So Many?”

Jan. 30:  “Algebra–A Formula for Failure”

Feb. 3:  “Fast Friends–11 Started; Three Finished”

Feb. 4: “The Dropout Industry”

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell issued the following statement regarding the series:  “I want to commend the Los Angeles Times for spending significant time and resources to produce an important and informative series on the critical problem of dropouts in our public school system. There is no doubt that the unacceptably high number of children failing to finish their education and therefore gain the necessary skills to prepare them for a dynamic, global workforce is devastating both to the individual and our society as a whole. As the world’s economy grows smaller and more interdependent, the demands on our workforce will continue to grow. The only way Californians will succeed in this demanding age is by improving our educational system and finding ways to connect with students who do not feel invested in attending school. As the LA Times first article in this series graphically displayed, far too many of our children are not even getting to the starting line. I hope this series helps bring this critical issue to the forefront and gives all of us renewed focus on improving education for all of California’s over 3 million schoolchildren.”

Excerpts from the second of the articles in this series are presented below. Readers are encouraged to access the complete article which includes student profiles and additional information. The Web page also includes a link to a collection of sample items from California’s Algebra I Standards Test.

(2) “Algebra:  A Formula for Failure in L.A. Schools” by Duke Helfand

Source: Los Angeles Times – 30 January 2006

…”[Algebra] triggers dropouts more than any [other] single subject,” said Los Angeles schools Supt. Roy Romer. “I think it is a cumulative failure of our ability to teach math adequately in the public school system.”

When the Los Angeles Board of Education approved tougher graduation requirements that went into effect in 2003, the intention was to give kids a better education and groom more graduates for college and high-level jobs. For the first time, students had to pass a year of algebra and a year of geometry or an equivalent class to earn diplomas.

The policy was born of a worthy goal but has proved disastrous for students unprepared to meet the new demands.

In the fall of 2004, 48,000 ninth-graders took beginning algebra; 44% flunked, nearly twice the failure rate as in English. Seventeen percent finished with Ds…  Among those who repeated the class in the spring, nearly three-quarters flunked again.

The school district could have seen this coming if officials had looked at the huge numbers of high school students failing basic math.

Lawmakers in Sacramento didn’t ask questions either. After Los Angeles Unified changed its policy, legislators turned algebra into a statewide graduation requirement, effective in 2004.

Now the Los Angeles school board has raised the bar again. By the time today’s second-graders graduate from high school in 2016, most will have to meet the University of California’s entry requirements, which will mean passing a third year of advanced math, such as algebra II, and four years of English.

Former board President Jose Huizar introduced this latest round of requirements, which the board approved in a 6-1 vote last June. Huizar said he was motivated by personal experience: He was a marginal student growing up in Boyle Heights but excelled in high school once a counselor placed him in a demanding curriculum that propelled him to college and a law degree.

“I think there are thousands of kids like me, but we’re losing them because we don’t give them that opportunity,” said Huizar, who left the school board after he was elected to the Los Angeles City Council last fall. “Yes, there will be dropouts. But I’m looking at the glass half full.”

Discouragement, Frustration

Birmingham High in Van Nuys…has a failure rate that’s about average for the district. Nearly half the ninth-grade class flunked beginning algebra last year…

Like other schools in the nation’s second-largest district, Birmingham High deals with failing students by shuttling them back into algebra, often with the same teachers… Educational psychologists say reenrolling such students in algebra decreases their chances of graduating.

“Repeated failure makes kids think they can’t do the work. And when they can’t do the work, they say, ‘I’m out of here,’ ” said Andrew Porter, director of the Learning Sciences Institute at Vanderbilt University in Nashville.

The strategy has also failed to provide students with what they need most: a review of basic math.

Teachers complain that they have no time for remediation, that the rapid pace mandated by the district leaves behind students like Tina Norwood, 15, who is failing beginning algebra for the third time.

Tina, who says math has mystified her since she first saw fractions in elementary school, spends class time writing in her journal, chatting with friends or snapping pictures of herself with her cellphone…Teachers wage a daily struggle in classes filled with students like Tina.

Her teacher, George Seidel, devoted a class this fall to reviewing equations with a single variable, such as x – 1 = 36. It’s the type of lesson students were supposed to have mastered in fourth grade…

Algebra, [educators] insist, can mean the difference between menial work and high-level careers. High school students can’t get into most four-year colleges without it. And the U.S. Department of Education says success in algebra II and other higher-level math is strongly associated with college completion….

Algebra, with its idiom of equations and variables, is more abstract than the math that comes before it. It uses symbols, usually letters, to represent numbers and sets of symbols to express mathematical relationships.

Educators say algebra offers a practical benefit: Analytical skills and formulas enable people to make sense of the world. Algebra can help a worker calculate income taxes, a baseball fan determine a pitcher’s earned-run average and a driver determine a car’s gas mileage.

“It’s the language of generalization. It’s a very powerful problem-solving tool,” said Zalman Usiskin, director of the University of Chicago School Mathematics Project.

Rationale for Algebra

Although experts widely agree that algebra sharpens young minds, some object to making it a graduation requirement.

“If you want to believe you’re for standards, you’re going to make kids take algebra. It has that ring of authenticity,” said Robert Balfanz, an associate research scientist with the Center for Social Organization of Schools at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. “But you’re not really thinking through the implications. There may be no good reason why algebra is essential for all high school students.”

Compulsory algebra is a relatively new idea in the faddish realm of education reform.

Until recently, high schools offered a range of programs. Students seen as academically able were placed in college-prep classes. Others were funneled into vocational courses in which they learned such skills as auto mechanics and office technology.

It was an imperfect system in which some bright students, particularly minorities, could find themselves trapped in classes that steered them away from higher education.

Then, about a decade ago, the pendulum began to swing as the state decided to raise academic standards for high school graduation.

The concept of algebra for all also was meant to elevate the level of U.S. high school students, whose math performance has long trailed that of peers in other industrialized countries where algebra is introduced at earlier grade levels.

Eager to close this competitive chasm, education and business leaders in California sought to re-engineer the state’s approach to math. They produced new math standards they believed would foster a “rising tide of excellence.”

This meant teaching algebra earlier, as soon as eighth grade for some students, even if instructors questioned whether younger students could handle abstract concepts.

“We didn’t regard any of this as extreme,” Stanford University mathematician James Milgram said recently, defending the 1997 math standards he helped write. “We need competent people in this country. We’re on our way to [becoming] a second-rate economic power.”

Legislators joined the charge in 1999, creating a high school exit exam with algebra questions, which takes effect this spring. They then enacted the law requiring algebra for graduation, starting with the Class of 2004, to prepare students for the exam.

To its staunchest advocate in the Legislature, algebra stood for higher expectations and new opportunities.

“We have a problem with a high dropout rate. You don’t address it by making it easier to get through and have the meaning of the diploma diluted,” said state Sen. Chuck Poochigian (R-Fresno), who wrote the algebra graduation law. “It should be a call to action…not to lower standards but to find ways to inspire. Our future depends on it.”

Whether requiring all students to pass algebra is a good idea or not, two things are clear: Schools have not been equipped to teach it, and students have not been equipped to learn it.

Secondary schools have had to rapidly expand algebra classes despite a shortage of credentialed math teachers.

The Center for the Future of Teaching & Learning in Santa Cruz found that more than 40% of eighth-grade algebra teachers in California lack a math credential or are teaching outside their field of expertise; more than 20% of high school math teachers are similarly unprepared…

High school teachers blame middle schools for churning out ill-prepared students. The middle schools blame the elementary schools, where teachers are expected to have a command of all subjects but sometimes are shaky in math themselves…

Administrators in L.A. Unified say they are trying to reverse the alarming failure rates of high school students by changing the way math is taught, starting in elementary schools.

The new approach stresses conceptual lessons rather than rote memorization, a change that some instructors think is wrong. New math coaches also are training teachers and coordinating lesson plans at many schools. The simplest algebraic concepts are now taught–or are supposed to be taught–beginning in kindergarten.

These changes appear to be paying off, at least in elementary grades. L.A. Unified’s elementary-level math scores have risen sharply over the last five years, although middle schools and high schools have yet to show significant progress.

Searching for a solution in its secondary schools, L.A. Unified is investing millions of dollars in new computer programs that teach pre-algebra, algebra and other skills.

Officials are considering other costly changes, including reducing the size of algebra classes to 25, launching algebra readiness classes for lagging eighth-graders and creating summer programs for students needing a kick-start before middle school or high school.

Some schools have taken matters into their own hands. Cleveland High, four miles from Birmingham, places ninth- and 10th-graders who get a D or F in algebra into semester-long classes that focus on sixth- and seventh-grade material and pre-algebra. Students then return to standard algebra classes. Eighteen percent of Cleveland’s 10th-graders were proficient in algebra on state tests last spring, compared with 8% at Birmingham and 3% districtwide.

But Cleveland’s strategy comes with risk. The state can lower the academic rankings of schools that remove ninth graders from first-year algebra. Consistently low rankings can invite district audits and penalties, including removal of teachers and administrators.

Birmingham High, wary of these consequences, is attacking the algebra crisis the way many other schools do: providing students with extra help after school and on weekends. The school launched a round of Saturday classes last fall for 600 students who were failing beginning algebra. Only 100 showed up, even though administrators called each student’s home.

The Saturday sessions start anew in February with a twist: separate algebra classes for parents who want to help their children.

But even as it tries to solve its algebra puzzle, Birmingham–along with the district’s 50 other traditional high schools–will soon face the even more rigid graduation requirements passed by the school board.

The chairman of Birmingham’s math department, Rick Prizant, said he believes the college-prep agenda is a noble but misguided policy dictated by district officials out of touch with the realities of the classroom. Where others see opportunity, he sees catastrophe.

“They’re being very unrealistic in what they are asking…. We’re spinning our wheels here,” said Prizant, who doubles as the school’s athletic director. “I think you’re going to see more dropouts. It’s frightening to me.”


(1) 2006 State of the Union Address by President George W. Bush


Last night, President Bush delivered his State of the Union Address. Excerpts that may be of particular interest to COMET readers appear below:

…To keep America competitive, one commitment is necessary above all:  We must continue to lead the world in human talent and creativity.  Our greatest advantage in the world has always been our educated, hardworking, ambitious people–and we’re going to keep that edge. Tonight I announce an American Competitiveness Initiative, to encourage innovation throughout our economy, and to give our nation’s children a firm grounding in math and science.

First, I propose to double the federal commitment to the most critical basic research programs in the physical sciences over the next 10 years.  This funding will support the work of America’s most creative minds as they explore promising areas such as nanotechnology, supercomputing, and alternative energy sources…

We need to encourage children to take more math and science, and to make sure those courses are rigorous enough to compete with other nations.  We’ve made a good start in the early grades with the No Child Left Behind Act, which is raising standards and lifting test scores across our country.  Tonight I propose to train 70,000 high school teachers to lead advanced-placement courses in math and science, bring 30,000 math and science professionals to teach in classrooms, and give early help to students who struggle with math, so they have a better chance at good, high-wage jobs.  If we ensure that America’s children succeed in life, they will ensure that America succeeds in the world…”


Related articles from eSchool News:

(a) Bush Pushed on Science, Innovation–Former ED Sec. Alexander Urges President to Promote Science, Technology Education

(b) Democrats: Education is the Key to Reclaiming Innovation

(2) State of the Union: American Competitiveness Initiative

Source: White House Office of Public Liaison via the STEM Education Coalition

The following paragraphs provide addition information regarding the American Competitiveness Initiative introduced by President Bush:

In His State Of The Union Address, President Bush Announced The American Competitiveness Initiative (ACI) to Encourage American Innovation And Strengthen Our Nation’s Ability To Compete In The Global Economy.  This ambitious strategy will increase Federal investment in critical research, ensure that the United States continues to lead the world in opportunity and innovation, and provide American children with a strong foundation in math and science. The American Competitiveness Initiative commits $5.9 billion in FY 2007, and more than $136 billion over 10 years, to increase investments in research and development (R&D), strengthen education, and encourage entrepreneurship and innovation. ..

Education Is The Gateway To Opportunity And The Foundation Of A Knowledge-Based, Innovation-Driven Economy.  To prepare our citizens to compete more effectively in the global marketplace, the American Competitiveness Initiative proposes $380 million in new Federal support to improve the quality of math, science, and technological education in our K-12 schools and engage every child in rigorous courses that teach important analytical, technical, and problem-solving skills.  Building on the successes of the No Child Left Behind Act, the American Competitiveness Initiative will raise student achievement in math and science through testing and accountability, providing grants for targeted interventions, and developing curricula based on proven methods of instruction.  The American Competitiveness Initiativeincludes a number of new and expanded programs, including:

 The Advanced Placement/International Baccalaureate (AP/IB) Program to expand access of low-income students to AP/IB coursework by training 70,000 additional teachers over five years to lead AP/IB math and science courses.

=  An Adjunct Teacher Corps to encourage up to 30,000 math and science professionals over eight years to become adjunct high school teachers.

 Math Now for Elementary School Students and Math Now for Middle School Students to promote promising and research-based practices in math instruction, prepare students for more rigorous math courses, and diagnose and remedy the deficiencies of students who lack math proficiency.


Note–Information about STEM (

The Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) Education Coalition works to support STEM programs for teachers and students at the U. S. Department of Education, the National Science Foundation, and other agencies that offer STEM related programs.

The STEM Education Coalition is composed of advocates from over 40 diverse groups [including MAA and NCTM] representing all sectors of the technological workforce–from knowledge workers, to educators, to scientists, engineers, and technicians. The participating organizations of the STEM Education Coalition are dedicated to ensuring quality STEM education at all levels.

The Coalition is co-chaired by the American Chemical Society and the National Science Teachers Association. Meetings are held monthly at the American Chemical Society, 1155 16th Street, NW, Washington, DC.

(3) “Push for Math Teachers Looks Back to Sputnik”

Source: – 31 January 2006

Business and science groups are reviving images of the Cold War space race in an effort to persuade lawmakers to spend millions to recruit and train high-caliber math teachers.

They argue that, just as a stronger focus on math helped the United States top the Soviet Sputnik launch by putting a man on the moon, the country needs to improve math education to win an economic race with China and India and a national security race against terrorism.

Groups are worried they will be unable to get policymakers’ attention without something like Sputnik, which became both a national embarrassment and rallying point to accelerate U.S. math and science efforts.

“The interesting sort of difference in the dynamic then and the dynamic now is that we were competing with a military threat, whereas now it’s much more an economic threat,” said Susan Traiman, an education and work force policy lobbyist for the Business Roundtable…

Some proposals suggest using taxpayer money to boost pay for math teachers, an idea opposed by the nation’s largest teachers union, the National Education Association. It wants higher salaries for all teachers, regardless of specialty…

Business lobbies–including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, National Association of Manufacturers, Business Roundtable and TechNet, a group of high-tech CEOs–are pressing for a national push on math. And some in business have already started pursuing math teacher improvement efforts on their own.

Raytheon, General Electric and IBM are among companies with programs aimed at making math cool: turning children on to math and improving math education.

Math for America ( scholarships, mentoring and pay bonuses to math whizzes who become teachers. The program was founded by Jim Simons, who earned a doctorate in math through a Pentagon program during the space race, worked as a math professor and went on to found a hedge fund and become a Wall Street billionaire.

Simons has hired a Washington lobbyist to urge the government to establish a program like his nationwide, and references to the Sputnik launch are also part of that lobbying effort…

Simons sees a shortage of people teaching math who really know math, and he thinks the solution is simple: Recruit people who know and love math, pay them enough to make teaching attractive, and they in turn will inspire more students to choose math careers…

(4) Reminder: February 15 is the Deadline for Raytheon’s MathMovesU Grant Applications


The 18 November 2005 issue of COMET contained information about Raytheon’s MathMovesU grants for middle/high school students and the Math Hero Awards for teachers.  Visit the above Web site for details about these award programs and for links to application forms. Applications will be accepted through February 15.