In several op-ed pieces appearing in The Argus recently, Sacramento Bee pundit Dan Walters chronicled a series of "disturbing signs" in California's public schools.

First, on June 16, Walters summarized the resurgent debate around teaching algebra in eighth grade, pitting those who favor a "historically rigorous set of academic standards" against others who prefer "fuzzy concepts over precise calculation."

In subsequent columns, he bemoaned the rising tide of high school dropouts and graduates unprepared for community college courses.

Truly, much is disturbing about public education in California and the nation. One of the greatest crises, however, may be the misguided crusade to enroll all students in a college-track curriculum, exemplified by the new state standards forcing so many eighth-graders to take algebra.

Ironically, it may be these irrational standards, more than anything else, that have encouraged so many youngsters to abandon their education or to flounder in community college remedial classes.

Algebra-in-eighth-grade proponents are correct that the course is a "gateway" to all higher mathematics and college.

In addition, much-publicized results of the International Mathematics and Science Study reveal other first-world students surpass U.S. eighth-graders in the level of mathematics they study and in their performance on an international math exam — the former supposedly explaining the latter.

However, there were other factors: Far more American children than their foreign peers start school without speaking the classroom language; far more dwell in poverty, lack health care and suffer from depression; far more attend segregated and too-often dilapidated schools; far more receive instruction from teachers ill-prepared to teach algebra; and very few at all receive a K-7 math education with algebraic concepts integrated throughout as so many of their international counterparts do.

The fact of the matter is, for a host of reasons, we in the United States have failed to enable so many of our eighth-graders to engage in the abstract thinking algebra requires.

Nonetheless, in the interest of competition and higher standards, we've simply raised the bar on them, with disastrous consequences.

In the fall of 2004, for example, 44 percent of Los Angeles high school freshmen who were enrolled in beginning algebra failed, and seven percent received a grade of "D." Of those students who repeated the class in the spring, almost three-fourths failed again.

The solution is to require algebra even earlier, in eighth grade?

Such a misguided academic "reform" harms everyone. Students who are ready and eager for a challenging, exciting Algebra course languish while the hapless instructor repeats explanations for others who are not. Those others, who still desperately need to learn the basics in math, don't and become increasingly discouraged. And, oh, what fun to teach such a class!

"[Algebra] triggers dropouts more than any [other] single subject," said then-Los Angeles schools Superintendent Roy Romer.

It triggers despair among math teachers as well, many of whom seek other professions.

Meanwhile, I wonder: If only 25 percent of this nation ever earns a college degree, why insist that all children take algebra in eighth grade? I attended a private suburban grade school and a Jesuit high school academy, but even I didn't begin algebra until the ninth grade.

And why, in defiance of all the research demonstrating children grow and mature — physically and intellectually — at different rates even under the best of circumstances, do we insist they all take the same college-prep curriculum lock-step together?

To ask such questions doesn't mean I want to "water down" standards or that I support "fuzzy concepts." It reveals only that I recognize how the many and complex challenges our public schools and our children face belie simplistic solutions such as "higher standards."

Dave Ellison's column appears on alternate Mondays in the Local section.