The whole algebra debate kicked off by Hacker’s algebra essay has…..well, if not depressed me, then at least enervated me.

A recap:

**Hacker:**

We shouldn’t make everyone take algebra. No one needs algebra anyway; we never really use it. Statistics would be much more useful. Algebra is the primary obstacle to high school success; millions of kids are failing because they can’t manage this course. If we just allowed students to have an easier time in high school, more of them would graduate successfully and go on to college.

**Outraged Opposition: **

Algebra is essential to college success and “real life” and one of many obstacles to high school success. No one is happy with the current state of affairs, but it’s clear that kids aren’t learning algebra because their teachers suck, particularly in elementary school. We need to teach math better in the lower grades, rather than lower our standards. Besides, the corollary to “not everyone should take algebra” is “some people should take algebra” and just how are you planning to divide up those teams? (Examples: Dan Willingham, Dropout Nation)

**Judicious Analysis: **

Sigh. Guys, this is really a debate about tracking, you know? And no one wants to go there. While it’s true that algebra really isn’t necessary for college, colleges use success in advanced math as a convenient sorting mechanism. Besides, once we say algebra isn’t necessary, where do we stop? Literature? Biology? Chemistry? But without doubt, Hacker is right in part. Did I say that no one wants to go there? Or just hint it really, really loudly?

Examples: Dana Goldstein, Justin Baeder Iand II.

**Voldemort Support:**

Well, of course not everyone should take algebra, trig, or calculus. Or advanced literature. Or science. Not everyone has the cognitive ability or the interest. We should have a richer and more flexible curriculum, allowing anyone with the interest to take whatever classes they like with the understanding that not all choices lead to college and that outcomes probably won’t have the racial distributions we’d all prefer to see. Oh, and while we’re at it, we should be reviewing our immigration policies because it’s pretty clear that our country doesn’t need cheap labor right now.

**Hacker, Outraged Opposition and Judicious Analysis to Voldemort Support: **

SHUT UP, RACIST!

So really, what else is left to say? The Judicious Analysis essays I linked above were the strongest by far, particularly Justin Baeder II.

Instead, I’m going to revisit a chart I updated from the last time I posted it:

These are California’s math scores by grade and subject, the percentage scoring basic/proficient or higher on the CST. Algebra entry points differ, so the two higher (and slightly longer) of the four short lines are the percentages of “advanced” students with those scores—those who took algebra in 7th or 8th grade. The lower, shortest lines represent the scores of students who began algebra in 9th grade.

Notice **that advanced students don’t match the performance of the entire elementary school population through 5th grade**. Notice, too, that the percentage of advanced students scoring proficient or higher is just around half of the population. When I just considered algebra students who began in 8th grade (see link above), the percentage never tops 50. Notice that around 40% of the kids who started algebra in 9th grade achieved **basic** or higher.

NAEP scores show the same thing—4th grade math scores have risen, while 12th grade scores stay flat. In fact, Daniel Willingham, who declares above that we’re doing a bad job at teaching elementary math, was considerably more sanguine about teacher quality back in December, citing the improved elementary school math performance shown in the NAEP. So the strong elementary school performance, coupled with a huge dropoff in advanced math, is not unique to California.

These numbers, on the surface, don’t support the conventional wisdom about math performance: namely, that elementary school teachers need improvement and that the seeds of our students’ failure in higher math starts in the lower grades. Elementary students are doing quite well. It’s only in advanced math, when the teachers are much more knowledgeable, with higher SAT scores and tougher credentialling tests, that student performance starts to decline dramatically.

What these numbers do suggest is that as math gets harder, fewer and fewer students achieve mastery, or anything near it. . What they suggest, really, is that math knowledge doesn’t advance in a linear fashion. Shocking news, I know. We have all forgotten the Great Wisdom of Barbie.

Break it down by race and the percentages vary, but not the pattern. I skipped Asians, because California tracks Asians by subcategory, and life’s too short. I’m going to go right out on a limb and predict that Asians did a bit better than whites.

(Note: I know it’s weird that in all cases, 9th graders in general math have nearly the same percentages as 9th graders in algebra, but it’s easily confirmed: whites, blacks, Hispanics).

Whites in the standard math track perform as well as advanced math blacks and just a bit worse than advanced track Hispanics. Sixty to seventy percent of blacks and Hispanics on the standard track fail to achieve a “basic” score.

Some people are wondering how poverty affects these results, I’m sure. Let’s check.

Hey! Look at that! The achievement gap disappears!

Just kidding. **This chart shows the results of blacks and Hispanics who are NOT economically disadvantaged and whites who ARE economically disadvantaged. ** You can see it on the legend.

So that’s how to make the achievement gap disappear: compare low income whites to middle class or higher blacks and Hispanics and hey, presto.

And that’s all the charts for today. I’m not detail-oriented, and massaged this all in Excel. You can do your own noodling here. Let me know if I made any major errors. The 2012 results should be out in a couple weeks.

Anyway. With numbers like these, it’s hard not to just see this entire debate as insanely pointless. In California, at least, tens of thousands of high school kids are sitting in math classes that they don’t understand, feeling useless, understanding deep in their bones that education has nothing to offer them. Meanwhile, well-meaning people who have never spent an hour of their lives trying to explain advanced math concepts to the lower to middle section of the cognitive scale pontificate about teacher ability, statistics vs. algebra, college for everyone, and other useless fantasies that they are allowed to engage in because until our low performers represent the wide diversity of our country to perfection, no one’s going to ruin a career by pointing out that this a pipe dream. And of course, while they’re engaging in these fantasies, they’ll blame teachers, or poverty, or curriculum, or parents, or the kids, for the fact that their dreams aren’t reality.

If we could just get whites and Asians to do a lot worse, no one would argue about the absurdity of sending everyone to college.

Until then, everyone will divert themselves by engaging in this debate—which, like many kids stuck in the hell of unfair expectations, will go nowhere.