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March 19, 2008


I think of algebra as being in the same category as music, believe it or not.

Both are universal languages, and both teach a kind of integrated thinking that can't be taught any other way.

I don't use either in my job (much), but both have contributed significantly to my success as a software engineer.

(I took pre-algebra in seventh grade, leading to calculus senior year.)

At any rate, algebra (or the lack of it) is a good indicator of how f'd up and inequitable our 6-8 offerings are in PPS. It shows that the K-8 transition is cutting curriculum beyond the bone, especially in our poorest neighborhoods.

I'm wondering how all this looks through the district's "equity lens." (Evidently theirs has quite a bit of rose tinting.)

I agree with you that not everyone needs algebra. We do need more scientists and engineers, but we should not confuse more math for some with more math for everyone. I worry that the increased math and science requirements for high school graduation for all will limit some students ability to pursue other interests. I am particularly concerned to get more high school students learning difficult foreign languages, like Mandarin, well and studying abroad, like China, for one of their high school years. For some the increased math and science graduation requirements might mean a choice between taking an extra year for high school (the study abroad option) and graduating in four years (not studying abroad and not getting the extra skill in the foreign language).

I don't disagree with your basic argument, but, it might be helpful if you had taken a statistics course or two.

There is no contradiction between correlation and causation. The whole point of finding a statistical correlation is to demonstrate some measure of causation. Everthing else being equal, if there is a statistical correlation between taking Algebra II and graduating from college, then there is, in fact, a causal relationship.

Of course, some wag once said that there are "lies, damn lies, and statistics." The trap here is to conclude that Algebra II is the only causal factor in college graduation, which clearly is not the case. Offering one humble example, I not only graduated from college, but got a Masters and a Ph.D without benefit of Algebra II. But I did take statistics.

Hi Terry! I'm the PPS Equity commentor who did that bit of research re: math offerings in middle schools vs. K-8 schools. The reason I did that is that it seems pretty difficult to figure out what courses are offered at individual schools. Someone else tried to figure out which elementary/K-8 schools offered art and music and found it nearly impossible. Since math offerings were on most middle school brochures, they were easy enough to find. Also, math is about as "core" an offering as they come, so you would think that every 8th grader would have access to the same math courses, right? Apparently not. So, I won't argue with you as to whether or not eight graders need to have the option of Geometry. My point was just to show that there are major inequities in course offerings that go deeper than electives and "enrichment."

Personally, I took Geometry in the early 80s as a public high school sophomore in highly diverse Oak Park, IL; and ended my math career by ace-ing multivariable calculus at a liberal arts college back east with classmates who had access to the riches of Andover and Choate. So, I wasn't harmed by not having it in middle school. Having said that, I'm not sure what kids need right now to be prepared for high school and college, and there is something fundamentally unfair about the disparity in math offerings in a single school district.


I hope I am not getting off point here, but do you believe that any student who wants advanced math (or whose parents want it for him/her, the "helicopter" appellation notwithstanding) should have access to it?

BTW, I want to thank Neisha for setting the record straight on comparing apples with apples regarding the K-8s. It is getting harder and harder to avoid thinking that we could have solved, I mean avoided, a lot of problems by just keeping our middle schools.

Thanks, Zarwen! Although, I must admit, as someone compulsive enough to seek out those brochures I probably do have some serious helicopter tendencies.

Of course Craig is fundamentally wrong, his statistics training notwithstanding, about correlation and causation. In fact, his experience post high school proves the point. Unless a study controls for all the variables (Algebra II being just one) that contribute to success in college, it's impossible to conclude that algebra is the cause of that success.

All that aside, I agree with Neisha that if advanced math is offered to eighth graders at one school, it should be offered at all schools. That's an issue of equity. Whether middle schoolers should be in hurry to take Geometry or Algebra II is a different issue altogether.

Exactly. Information about course offerings is limited. I'm not even sure that what I looked at is current. Although, I'm guessing that school-created websites are more reliable than school fact pages? And the information regarding K-8 schools came from what was written about parent testimony at Rigler a few weeks back. That's why I picked math. It seemed the easiest thing to compare. (See, all that math and science is coming in handy to this non-techie.)

However, I do want to acknowlege the positive things that you have said about K-8s: the sense of community; the parent involvement; the advantages for both older and younger children to be together. I think what needs to happen is a conversation about what we want for middle school age children. Is it more important to have the ability to offer Geometry, electives, etc? Is it more important for children to stay in their neighborhoods longer? Exactly what course offerings can be provided by K-8s and middle schools? Will they differ, should they differ, why or why not? None of this discussion has taken place and so it's really difficult for me to know which model is better without more information and a way to compare.

"None of this discussion has taken place. . . ."

Hurricane Vicki's trademark, exactly.

" . . . it's really difficult for me to know which model is better without more information and a way to compare. . . ."

Interestingly, the bill of goods VP sold to the school board was that achievement rates are higher for grades 6-8 at K-8s. Given that, there's no need for discussion, right? Unfortunately, the research shows that achievement rates in grades 6-8 are equal between K-8s and middle schools. There are other issues that vary, of course, some of which Neisha mentioned, but achievement happens not to be one of them.

Neisha has done a brilliant job of outlining, at least in part, what the discussion really needs to be about. Neisha, I suggest you forward your post to the two moms who organized that meeting at Rigler. After all, didn't Supt. Smith say she was going to keep in touch with them for follow-up?


You're digging yourself a deeper hole on the "correlation - causation" issue.

You wrote: "Unless a study controls for all the variables (Algebra II being just one) that contribute to success in college, it's impossible to conclude that algebra is the cause of that success."

Any statistical analysis must -- repeat must -- try to control -- for all other possible causal or intervening variables. This is done by sampling -- usually random -- in which it is assumed that, if the sample is large enough, all other variables are represented in the sample equally -- i.e., are controlled -- and, therefore, have no influence on the outcome. If the study doesn't control for other causal or intervening variables, it can't be considered statistically valid -- i.e., there is no correlation.

That said, controlling for all the variables is easier said than done, which is why I equated statistics, in my last post, with lies and damn lies and concluded that Algebra II is far from the only causal factor explaining college graduation.

Thanks, Zarwen. I'll track down those names and send it along. I'm new to this and wouldn't mind grabbing coffee with any of you folks sometime. Let me know if you're interested.

Craig, I'm pretty sure Terry is right re: the difference between correlation and causation. I thought correlation was when two trends seem to track each other but there is no proof that one causes the other. Causation is when one causes the other. It's sort of like all those Mozart CDs we got when we gave birth. There's a correlation between babies listening to Mozart and some positive attribute, but there's no proof that one causes the other. But, we still got those CDs anyway, just in case.

I'm pretty sure I'm right, too, Neisha, although Craig took statistics and I didn't. (I did take Algebra II, however, and he didn't.)

Here are three of the 32 principles from Gerald Bracey's book, Reading Educational Research: How to Avoid Getting Statistically Snookered.

13. Do not confuse statistical significance and practical significance.

14. Make no causal inferences from correlation coefficients.

15. Any two variables can be correlated. The resultant correlation coefficient might or might not be meaningful.

Bracey has a Ph.D in Educational Psychology and knows a thing or two research methodology.

"about" research methodology.

Almost all educational research is worthless. If you start with that premise things are much more simple. The major problem in educational research is you can't get a decent control group. Hence, causation is almost always questionable. If you remember that, you have a lots better chance of not getting hoodwinked.

The implications of this for PPS are massive. As just one example, the suggestion that "research" shows that K-8's do better academically than middle schools becomes an invalid statement, and certainly one on which you shouldn't base educational decisions. Did the school board and last superintendent not understand this? It certainly sounded like they didn't when they switched huge portions of the school district to K-8's.

In my mind, it is beyond arguing from this vantage point that the massive headlining changes Hurricane Vicki brought were designed to give her a leg up to a national level career platform. She achieved her aim at our expense. We are now saddled with radical changes brought under the cover of thinly supported "educational research" conclusions. That a substantial portion of parents directly effected by these self-serving shenanigans were willing to accept the "research" rationale is a good measure of the value Portlanders place on conflict avoidance. She ate our lunch. Having our lunch eaten, many continue to try to see the glass as half full. Instead of yet again avoiding conflict, surely it is time to clean house of all those who abetted this giant frolic. Inoffensive but uninspired Carole Smith (VP former chief of staff), Houston transplant Cathy Mincberg and others need to go. Smith is not Hurricane Vicki, nor does she represent a departure from Phillips. A public cleansing and renewal is the only way to clear the stink enshrouding PPS and the Pink Palace.

"Pink Palace"?

How dignified. When I worked for PPS, we called it The Pumpkin.

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