Do you remember Equity 2000?
Dianne Pors found it hard to believe what she was seeing when she took her first job in 1975 as a ninth grade math teacher at Yerba Buena High School in the East Side Union High School district of San Jose. The school district seemed to be trying to remove that messy but essential element of math education, teaching, from her class.
Her students would come to class each day, take a quick quiz and then be handed a worksheet. That would be the extent of her professional involvement. They were told to complete the worksheet, hand it in and get another. They could ask her questions, but that was it.
Such simplified ninth grade math classes were standard throughout the country. Most were not as extreme as the one at Yerba Buena. They allowed teachers to teach, but not much. It was assumed that most high school freshmen were not ready for algebra or anything that had even a hint of algebra. They reviewed elementary school math. Many people thought that was all they were capable of understanding.
But in the 1980s a group of educational researchers, encouraged by frustrated math teachers like Pors, began to present evidence that many more ninth graders were ready for algebra, if school districts could be persuaded to teach it to them. Social scientists Sol H. Pelavin and Michael Kane published a landmark paper, “Changing the Odds: Factors Increasing Access to College”. It showed that many minority children, even those with disadvantaged backgrounds, could succeed in Algebra I if given a chance to take the course.
The College Board, with a new president, Donald Stewart, and a group of directors worried that too few minorities were going to college, decided to invest in one of the largest pilot projects the organization had ever launched, Equity 2000. School districts with large numbers of disadvantaged students in Fort Worth, Tex., Milwaukee, Wisc., Nashville, Tenn., Prince George's County, Md., Providence, R.I., and San Jose, Calif., agreed to require that all ninth-graders take Algebra I in return for money and guidance to train more teachers, share ideas and keep track of the results.
The College Board hired Vinetta Jones, later dean of the education school at Howard University, to lead the effort. She was an educational psychologist who had built programs that accelerated math instruction in California and North Carolina, and had been a math teacher herself. The daughter of two African American college graduates, she had a keen appreciation of some educators' attitudes toward minority students, having once been told by her Algebra I teacher in a nearly all-white school in Detroit that she would not be able to keep up with the class.
I am researching Equity 2000 for a short book on its history. I had no memory of the program when the project was first offered to me, but the more I have gotten into it, the more interesting it has become. In the Equity 2000 pilot districts I have studied so far, educators found that training more teachers in instructional strategies for algebra and requiring all freshmen to take it had profound results. Within a decade, and often sooner, more ninth graders in those districts were passing Algebra I than had even taken the course before Equity 2000 began.
By the end of the 1990s, many more school systems, not just the original pilot districts, were raising their ninth grade math standards. Soon the national conversation was not just about algebra in ninth grade, but about how many students in eighth grade might be ready for it.
It is a big story that involved many teachers, counselors, principals, teacher trainers, students and parents. I would love to receive emails at email@example.com from anyone who has memories of participating in Equity 2000 and thoughts about how effective it was.
The districts seemed to have genuine success in raising the math achievement level of about half the students they welcomed into algebra. There were also gains in the geometry side of the program. But not all students succeeded in their first year of algebra, and districts struggled with ways to help them catch up.
One interesting question is, how important are such interventions by large and influential groups like the College Board in raising achievement? What other examples do we have, and could a project like Equity 2000 jump start moribund efforts to improve reading? Could it help find better ways to save struggling schools?
Pors had risen to math coordinator for the East Side Union High School District when she began working with Equity 2000. She had not been able to get rid of the all-worksheet ninth grade math class, but the promise of College Board support for putting all those students in algebra allowed her to kill the old program.
"I can't imagine what it would have been like if we hadn't done that," she said. "It took something that dramatic to change a practice that had been entwined with what we were doing." She could now train teachers to teach ninth grade math, not hand out worksheets. Their students would be learning algebra, not warmed over arithmetic.
The numbers, she said, justified what they did. In 1990, when the program started, only 2,157 Hispanic students were enrolled in algebra or higher level math courses. In 1999, after a decade of Equity 2000, 2,780 Hispanic students passed algebra or a higher level course. "I had always wanted to do something like this," she said, "and we were just ready to go."
Read Jay's blog every day at http://washingtonpost.com/class-struggle.
| March 12, 2010; 5:30 AM ET
Categories: Trends | Tags: Dianne Pors, Equity 2000, Michael Kane, Sol Pelavin, Vinetta Jones, after a decade more passing the course than took it before, algebra for ninth graders, major College Board math project, math education
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