AT SOME BAY AREA middle schools, Algebra I is the realm of the mathematically advanced — the kids who grasped percentages and fractions with ease when they were younger or who scored highly on a pre-algebra placement test given in fifth or sixth grade.
In Piedmont, an affluent Alameda County school district that boasts some of the highest standardized test scores in the state, just 55 percent of the eighth-grade class took Algebra I last year, while 39 percent took a slower-paced, pre-algebra course and 6 percent took geometry.
Not so in Oakland.
Starting this fall, nearly all Oakland eighth-graders will be making the leap from the concrete world of arithmetic into the abstract world of Algebra I, learning how to solve and graph equations with 'x' and 'y' variables. "Algebra A," a slower-moving course akin to pre-algebra, will all but disappear.
The issue is politically and educationally contentious — in part, because of underlying issues of race and class. "Tracked" math classrooms in Oakland and elsewhere historically have been quite segregated, with few blacks and Latinos in the fast lane. The math scores of the city's black and Latino high school students are dismal.
In 2008 the state Board of Education, urged by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, voted to make California the first state in the nation to require its schools to test students in Algebra I in middle
But a number of Bay Area school districts, including Hayward, Berkeley, Oakland and West Contra Costa, are moving in the "algebra for all" direction.
It's widely agreed that students' success in high school and even college can hinge on whether they master algebra — and that far too many fall short, especially in poor communities. An Oakland school district analysis this spring found that students were no more likely to pass Algebra I as ninth-graders, after an extra year of preparation, than as eighth-graders, said Brad Stam, the district's chief academic officer.
But the algebra problem itself is so deeply rooted, its solutions so complex, that some say the "algebra for all" approach is too simplistic and that it will end up hurting some students.
Natalie Mann, who teaches at Montera Middle School in the Oakland hills, says she gave a group of summer school students a test designed by UC Berkeley to predict success in Algebra I. The average score was 25 percent, she said, but they all will take the course in the fall, regardless.
"I know there are people who will tell you that Algebra I in the eighth grade is the civil rights issue of the 21st century, but teaching kids who aren't ready for algebra is just setting them up for failure," Mann said.
Kathryn Ortega is a veteran algebra teacher at Edna Brewer Middle School who helps to train some of her math colleagues throughout the district. She still remembers when, years ago, she first walked the hallways of the racially diverse school in the Oakland's Glenview neighborhood.
When Ortega peeked inside a slower-track eighth-grade math classroom, she said, she was struck by what she saw: Nearly all of the students were black and Latino, and most of them were boys.
The school since has phased out those slower classes. By the 2008-09 school year, nearly all of its eighth-graders were taking Algebra I; students who needed extra help took a second period of math. Those support classes were a challenge, Ortega said, in part because the school district did not purchase algebra readiness materials.
"It was intense," Ortega said. "It takes a strong teacher to do it."
In raw numbers, more of Oakland's eighth-graders scored "proficient" or "advanced" on the state algebra test this spring than ever before — about 465 in all. But that number represents only 24 percent of the district's eighth-grade algebra students. Edna Brewer more than doubled that success rate. Still, one-third of the school's eighth-graders scored "below basic" or "far below basic" on the test, meaning they could end up retaking the class as ninth-graders this fall.
For Oakland's African-American students, the spring results were grim: Only 13 percent who took algebra in eighth-grade showed proficiency on the test. At Edna Brewer, it was 24 percent.
Ortega says she supports the eighth-grade algebra requirement, in theory, for reasons of equity and integration.
"We don't want classrooms full of black kids," she said. "Let's get real here."
On the other hand, Ortega admitted she had mixed feelings about how the algebra experiment will play out, given the resources available to teachers and schools.
"I am very nervous for many of these kids, because there aren't enough great teachers out there, or a second curriculum to get these kids ready in the eighth grade," she said. "But how do we do that?"
"Summer algebra academies" are one answer to Ortega's question, though only a partial one. This year, about 550 Oakland middle and high school students voluntarily (depending on who you ask) spent five weeks of their summer, five hours a day, immersed in integers, properties and order of operations at one of eight programs held throughout the city.
Some academies were designed for soon-to-be eighth-graders who struggled in math and who are about to take algebra for the first time. Others, such as the one at Oakland Technical High School in North Oakland, were for incoming ninth-graders who will repeat the class — but with a different textbook.
"Let's multiply x by two, square x and multiply by four," Nestor Amaya, 14, said to his partner during an activity that tested their "order of operations" knowledge. Then he changed his mind. "Multiply x by four, then square the answer."
He paused as his partner attempted to solve the problem. Then he shook his head.
"That's not right, dude."
Like many of his classmates, Nestor said algebra wasn't hard and that the summer program was teaching him things he already knew — an attitude that high school algebra teachers have come to expect from teens who have failed the class once or twice before.
"Math is not hard for me," he said. "I just don't like doing homework."
Keyla Fluker, who sat nearby, said that as much as she hated studying algebra during her summer vacation, she was actually learning something.
"In summer school they put it all together, how this chapter relates to last chapter, and everything in between," she said.
The summer academies, with their extremely small class sizes, abundant materials and team-teaching, are a training ground for teachers, too — experienced and novice alike. This fall, half of the school district's high school algebra teachers will be new to the profession, either in their first or second years.
Laura Hayes, Nestor's teacher, said her students left the academy with a much stronger grasp of the material than they had when they first took their seats in her summer class. She said that she too learned some valuable skills. When school starts up again on Monday, she said, she won't just write problems on the board and expect students to take notes.
"I think that's what needs to happen," Hayes said. "We need to be teaching them in many different ways, and teaching them how they best learn."
A trickle-up theory
In the past two years, state math scores have risen dramatically at some of the city's elementary schools, particularly at schools that have adopted an interactive, high-energy approach to teaching math that introduces algebra concepts early.
Some of the middle schools, too, have started to see improvements.
The Oakland school district is expanding the math program this fall to 35 elementary and 18 middle schools. Cleo Protopapas, who directs the Oakland school district's algebra initiative, says she is optimistic that students will soon enter middle and high school with a more solid footing, making Algebra I less of a leap.
Until then, she said, Oakland's schools will have to do everything they can to reach its vast numbers of students who are failing math, their teachers and their parents. Given the state funding cuts, she wonders whether the resources needed to make that happen — such as mentors and other support for new algebra teachers — will materialize, or whether there will be money for a summer algebra program next year.
Still, she said, "I know our kids can do better. I know it because I've seen it."
Percentage of eighth-graders enrolled in Algebra I last year varied widely by school district.
Source: California Department of Education. Note: A small percentage of students in some districts took geometry, a more advanced course, as eighth-graders.
Keyla Fluker, 16, translates algebraic expressions into words July 8 during a summer algebra academy at Oakland Technical High. At top, Tuyet-Linh Phan helps Miriam Vasquez, 14, center, and Amanjot Sandhu, 14, with math problems.