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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 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."

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By Jay Mathews  | 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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Fair enough, Jay. But make sure you examine another part of the story- examples of where algebra has been force fed to kids not ready for it and has resulted in massive failures. For example, the LA times did an excellent 3-part series 4 years ago about this issue which you can access from their archives.

Posted by: patrickmattimore1 | March 12, 2010 6:51 AM | Report abuse

Too many kids are being pushed into Algebra I in 8th or even 7th grade. At my local public middle school in DC, all incoming students are required to take Algebra in 8th grade if they haven't already.

Unfortunately, many kids simply aren't ready for the concepts and focus that the course requires, and it sets them up for future failure in mathematics.

Posted by: trace1 | March 12, 2010 7:41 AM | Report abuse

It is possible to take algebra, and even pass it, without understanding anything. I teach computer science at the university level. The other day I was working with a student who was writing a program that calculated percentages. To my amazement, I realized that the student had NO IDEA how to compute a percentage. Even when I asked him how to do it on his calculator, he couldn't do it. He said "should I solve for x?". I was puzzled - there were no unknowns in my percentage problem - no algebra at all. And then I realized that he had no idea what a percentage is, and furthermore, had no idea what "solving for x" meant. He had passed algebra in high school. I would argue that a student who has no understanding of percentages was not ready to take algebra, and that he probably memorized his way desperately through the course.

Posted by: bkmny | March 12, 2010 8:22 AM | Report abuse

Good thoughts. Keep them coming please.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | March 12, 2010 8:26 AM | Report abuse

I would also like to see more emphasis on practical math skills for high schoolers, such as:

Calculate gross pay based on salaried, hourly, piecework, or commission wages.
• Calculate net pay using information about deductions.
• Fill out deposit slips, checks, and check registers.
• Understand how to obtain and use credit cards responsibly.
• Calculate loan and investment values using simple and compound interest.
• Figure the rate and amount of claims paid to creditors in a bankruptcy.
• Develop a budget using fixed and flexible expenses.
• Compare the costs of buying or renting living space.
• Understand consumer considerations such as comparative shopping, eating out, gratuity
payments, and sales tax.
• Make decisions regarding how to spend discretionary income.
• Understand service expenses.
• Understand the terms used in life, home, health, and auto insurance policies.
• Figure the benefits and expenses relating to life, home, health, and auto insurance policies.
• Understand the differences and similarities between stocks, bonds, and mutual funds.
• Calculate the net gain or loss from buying and selling stocks, bonds, and mutual funds.
• Find the costs associated with owning, operating, or leasing a motor vehicle.
• Calculate expenses relating to vacations.
• Apply metric and standard measurement systems to various problems.
• Determine the value of currency in various countries.

(From Wisconsin Virtual School)

Yes, they should know Algebra. They should also know how interest is calculated on credit card debt.

Posted by: trace1 | March 12, 2010 9:20 AM | Report abuse

Don't forget that the project included a large professional development effort aimed at convincing teachers, counselors, and the kids themselves that they could, in fact, pass math. The original Pelavin/Kane research showed that minority kids who passed algebra and geometry AND expected to go to college did, in fact, enroll in college at the same rate as white kids. Convincing the teachers was the hard part; the first year in Providence, RI, one teacher flunked 100% of his students (in all his classes), and a couple more passed fewer than 5. It gradually got better, but this was not a quick fix project.

Posted by: groundhogdayguy | March 12, 2010 9:31 AM | Report abuse

This thread is a great example of the dual challenge that is involved in getting more low-income kids through grade-level high school math. There has to be extra push from the teachers and the system; at the same time, there has to be MUCH better preparation at the K-8 level so that the students will not end up like the college student described above. To a great extent, if we don't do the latter, the former just amounts to "credentialing" kids with Algebra on their transcripts without giving them the actual skills. That may be OK for students who are going to major in field other than math, science, or business, but its fatal for kids who think they are aimed at STEM fields.

Posted by: jane100000 | March 12, 2010 10:26 AM | Report abuse

As far back as the mid 80s, it was widely known that the actual material presented in Algebra I (and other courses) varied across Monogomery County schools, despite identical course descriptions. The class was much more rigorous, and demanded more previous knowledge, in some areas (generally the western) of the county than in others. I remember when the Board of Ed was shocked, shocked to discover that each school had been allowed to set their own pass rate for the countywide Algebra I exam (and for geometry, as well),resulting in something like a 40 point difference in the passing score across schools. This had, of course, been known by parents, teachers and students for years. The point: just because the course is called algebra doesn't make it algebra. As was said above, it is necessary to ramp up both ES and MS math to ensure readiness for real algebra.

Posted by: momof4md | March 12, 2010 11:52 AM | Report abuse

These days I think the MoCo math curriculum at the k-8 level is pretty ramped up already.

Posted by: celestun100 | March 12, 2010 12:28 PM | Report abuse

I would be grateful if groundhogdayguy emailed me at for further conversation. Somebody who knows the Providence story is somebody I would like to be in contact with.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | March 12, 2010 3:03 PM | Report abuse

Celestun or other: do you know what math curriculum MoCo uses for k-5 and 6-8? I would like to know.

Posted by: momof4md | March 12, 2010 6:16 PM | Report abuse

Sorry, I should have checked first. The MoCo math website lists Investigations for MS, but I couldn't find what ES uses. Is it Trailblazers or Everyday Math?

All of the above are based on the idea of the spiral; touching on topics but no focus on mastery and sequential progression, a disdain for mastery of basic facts and algorithms and significant use of calculators. Singapore Math followed by Dolciani pre-algebra and algebra are much stronger; and likely to be used at tutoring sites such as Kumon. In other words, the affluent kids whose parents do (or contract out) supplementation will do fine; those who don't have outside resources are likely to struggle.

Posted by: momof4md | March 12, 2010 6:29 PM | Report abuse

I agree with Patrick. Jay, you never seem to pay attention to Tom Loveless of the Brookings Institute.

"The second section tackles another hot topic in policy circles—whether all eighth graders should take an algebra course. California recently adopted a universal eighth grade algebra policy that will be implemented in 2011, joining a Minnesota policy with the same objective and implementation date. Are all eighth graders prepared to take an algebra class? National data are examined from eighth grade math classes in 2005 to answer that question.

Low achievers in mathematics, those scoring in the bottom tenth of all students, function several years below grade level. A shocking percentage of these low achievers, 28.6 percent, were enrolled in advanced mathcourses—Algebra I, Algebra II, or Geometry—in 2005. A policy of algebra for all eighth graders will dramatically increase the proportion of these misplaced math students. Sample math items are presented to illustrate the large gaps in the misplaced students’ mathematical knowledge, in particular, their poor grasp of fractions, decimals, and percentages. The misplaced students are described in terms of demographic characteristics, the schools they attend, and the teachers who are instructing their math classes. The portrait is deeply troubling. The misplaced students are some of the nation’s most vulnerable youngsters. The analysis raises questions about the feasibility of an “algebra for all” policy until we know how to reduce the number of underprepared students and how to effectively teach algebra to students who struggle with basic arithmetic. "

Posted by: Cal_Lanier | March 12, 2010 7:07 PM | Report abuse

From The Misplaced Math Student:

He describes how far more students were in algebra classes, but then discusses their test scores.

"The average NAEP score for eighth graders
in advanced math classes is 291 (see Figure
2-3). The national average for all eighth
graders is 279. On the same NAEP scale, the
national average for fourth graders is 238. The misplaced eighth graders score an average of 211, which is 27 scale score points below the national average for fourth grade. Analysts consider 11 NAEP scale score points as approximately
equivalent to one year of learning,
which means that these misplaced students
know about as much math as a typical
second grader. Advanced students score about one year above grade level. The misplaced students function about seven grade levels below peers enrolled in the same courses."

An algebra teacher can expect a minimum of two students in a class who aren't prepared for algebra. Obviously, in low income areas, that number will be much higher--but their pass rate will also be much higher.

There's nothing much to celebrate about increased "math access" and the end of tracking. What we should have done was ensure that all kids with the ability had access to appropriate level work. Instead, we declared that everyone had the ability to learn the same material at the same speed, and stuck unprepared kids in algebra by fiat.

Posted by: Cal_Lanier | March 12, 2010 7:12 PM | Report abuse


I think Moco has its own curriculum and I don't know what it is based on. I don't think they actually have a disdain for basic facts, but the emphasis is certainly not on basic facts anymore. My son skipped fourth grade math, which I was a bit shocked by at the time, but he has never had problems. Except that he had a dentist appointment on the day they taught long division and missed the whole idea for awhile. I used to teach fourth grade (90's) and while I'm not a stick to the basics person, I remember we did long division for about 2 months. I think moco has a very good math program. But, my kids like math.

Posted by: celestun100 | March 12, 2010 7:40 PM | Report abuse


I was looking over the Wisconsin standards one day and I noticed they had a whole section on financial knowledge. All sorts of practical stuff like saving money and interest rates and so forth.

Posted by: celestun100 | March 12, 2010 7:42 PM | Report abuse

Cal: That is the issue I was adressing in my post about curriculum choices. The fuzzy math - Trailblazers, Everyday Math, Investigations etc - do not prepare kids for algebra, in 8th grade or anywhere else, because they are fundamentally flawed; they don't teach real math. Real math means ensuring mastery of each sequential step (basic facts and algorithns) before advancing. It's like building a house; the foundation is first and everything else follows in logical sequence. Also, a solid knowledge of manipulation of fractions, decimals and percentages is an essential prerequisite for algebra.

That being said, it is impossible to say that everyone will be ready for algebra in 8th grade. With the proper foundation and appropriate acceleration, the top will be ready by 6th, others in 7th, others in 8th, and others later. Especially in the current system, which includes kids with severe cognitive handicaps who formerly never entered the school system, some kids will never be capable of algebra or anything else which requires dealing with abstractions. What we do know is that explicit teaching of the fundamentals will increase the number of kids ready for algebra. Putting unprepared kids in "algebra" is dishonest and useless.

Posted by: momof4md | March 12, 2010 7:52 PM | Report abuse

The Pelavin and Kane paper doesn't demonstrate that algebra, which Pelavin once taught, is critical. Just that it is a marker, a predictor. Similarly, one can show that language course completion in HS is strongly predictive of NAEP math performance of 12th graders. Yes, net of prior grades and family economic background. Journalists and researchers who hype particular "findings" should acknowledge that their force in the US is to shove curriculum downward. Yes,there are many well-taught math students who are ready for algebra (and number theory, and probability and statistics) earlier than they have been traditionally taught. But, not the majority. Math teachers are in broad agreement that early algebra was adopted in too many schools systems with students unprepared for it by their earlier coursework. Jay, you have no idea how unlikely it is that a student will progress through the sixth grade without having suffered successive years of math instruction with teachers who really do not enjoy or understand math, whatever their facility in going through the algorithms and patience in assigning and grading homework.

Posted by: incredulous | March 14, 2010 8:32 PM | Report abuse

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