Thursday, March 09, 2006

Why we should require algebra in school

In his speech, Barack Obama referred to The Shame of the Nation by Jonathan Kozol, and a passage excerpted here:
Mireya… who had plans to go to college, told me that she had to take a sewing class last year and now was told she'd been assigned to take a class in hair-dressing as well. When I asked her teacher why Mireya could not skip these subjects and enroll in classes that would help her to pursue her college aspirations, she replied, "It isn't a question of what students want. It's what the school may have available. If all the other elective classes that a student wants to take are full, she has to take one of these classes if she wants to graduate."

A very small girl named Obie… said there were two levels of hairdressing offered here at Fremont High. "One is in hairstyling," she said. "The other is in braiding."

Mireya stared hard at this student for a moment and then suddenly began to cry. "I don't want to take hairdressing. I did not need sewing either. I knew how to sew. My mother is a seamstress in a factory. I'm trying to go to college. I don't need to sew to go to college. My mother sews. I hoped for something else."

"What would you rather take?" I asked.

"I wanted to take an AP class," she answered.

Mireya's sudden tears elicited a strong reaction from one of the boys who had been silent up till now: a thin, dark-eyed student named Fortino, who had long hair down to his shoulders. He suddenly turned directly to Mireya and spoke into the silence that followed her last words.

"Listen to me," he said. "The owners of the sewing factories need laborers. Correct?"

"I guess they do," Mireya said.

"It's not going to be their own kids. Right?" "Why not?" another student said.

"So they can grow beyond themselves," Mireya answered quietly. "But we remain the same."

"You're ghetto," said Fortino, "so we send you to the factory." He sat low in his desk chair, leaning on one elbow, his voice and dark eyes loaded with a cynical intelligence. "You're ghetto—so you sew!"

"There are higher positions than these," said a student named Samantha.

"You're ghetto," said Fortino unrelentingly. "So sew!"
We require algebra in high school because we don't want to leave Mireya, Obie, or little Fortino behind. Does that make life hard for Gabriela (the one who failed algebra six times)? Maybe. But if we make algebra and elective, we wind up with Mireya stuck taking sewing and hairdressing.

Bob Somerby spent a while complaining about how "liberals dropped low-income kids like a rock." He even quotes from Kozol's book.

But he ignores the fact that setting high standards for inner-city schools is how we help low-income kids. He has a fair point about establishing appropriate prerequisites, but the claim that requiring algebra is somehow elitist is stupid. Setting the same high standards for everyone is as anti-elitist as can be, provided you provide the necessary support!

The two sets of cost studies that have come out for Kansas schools, like similar studies elsewhere, all show that education in high-density urban areas costs more per pupil than in low density areas, even at the same income levels. We could speculate about why that might be, but it doesn't matter, it's a fact of life and we need to confront that reality.

I raised this issue with the Democratic Board of Education candidates at Washington Days. The consensus was that we know basically what to do. We offer after-school classes, better pre-school, summer school. The key is to raise all boats, not to abandon the crews whose boats have been tied down by conditions beyond their control. The problem is not knowledge, it's money. These programs all cost money, but the people who allocate the money aren't interested in helping out the people who need it most.

Reed Hundt told this story about internet access in schools back in October:

today nearly 90% of all classrooms and libraries do have such access. The schools covered were public and private. …More than 90% of all teachers praise the impact of such technology on their work. At any rate, since [Bill] Bennett had been Secretary of Education I asked him to support the bill in the crucial stage when we needed Republican allies. He told me he would not help, because he did not want public schools to obtain new funding, new capability, new tools for success. He wanted them, he said, to fail so that they could be replaced with vouchers,charter schools, religious schools, and other forms of private education.
And that's where we stand. So long as urban schools are left underfunded and failing, conservative opponents of public education can use those failures as an excuse to further de-fund those same schools, rather than fixing the problem and helping people.

"You're ghetto – so you sew!"