San Francisco Ballot Measure Shows Decade-Long Struggle to Restore 8th-Grade Algebra

In its quest for “equity,” the San Francisco Unified School District made a controversial decision to remove algebra from middle schools a decade ago—a move criticized for hindering advanced learners in mathematics. Nonetheless, the course is set to make a comeback in the upcoming fall, marking the end of this divisive experiment.

Tomorrow, the public will vote to address this issue through a ballot measure, although the school board proactively decided to reinstate algebra during its meeting on Feb. 13 in response to ongoing pressure. This decision came after Rex Ridgeway and others filed a lawsuit against SFUSD last year, questioning the gains claimed by the district from removing algebra from middle school.

The debate over when to introduce algebra in school systems has been a nationwide challenge, with San Francisco now joining the ranks of districts wrestling between equity and rigor in educational policies. Following diverse participation rates in middle school algebra, particularly favoring white and wealthier students, the struggle to strike a balance persists.

While some argue that algebra serves as an unnecessary barrier to student success, others push for broader access to the course. Notably, Dallas successfully increased the participation of marginalized students in advanced coursework by altering its opt-in approach, demonstrating no decline in academic performance. Similarly, Cambridge Public Schools recently reversed its decision to eliminate middle school algebra due to parental opposition.

Despite receiving initial praise for its decision to remove algebra from middle schools, San Francisco faced opposition from parents, fearing it would impede students’ progress towards calculus and future opportunities in STEM fields. This led to a protracted battle, culminating in the course’s reinstatement.

Meredith Dodson, from SF Parents, understood SFUSD’s rationale to eliminate algebra a decade ago but believes the move backfired, ultimately hurting students it aimed to help. Dodson highlights the glaring disparity, as parents advocate for the course’s reintroduction to ensure a more robust educational foundation.

Amidst declining student enrollment post-pandemic, SFUSD’s decision to reintroduce algebra also coincides with school closures due to shrinking populations. The district’s change of heart concerning algebra comes after the 2022 recall of three school board members, reflecting public discontent over various educational policy shifts.

As SFUSD prepares to pilot algebra in diverse formats next fall, it aims to offer online and summer courses to adapt to changing educational needs. Patrick Wolff, advocating for improved math education, underscores the necessity to provide tailored support for students excelling in advanced math and those requiring additional assistance.

With a push for equity in college readiness and success, Melodie Baker from Just Equations emphasizes the need for innovative strategies in implementing eighth-grade algebra. Highlighting past disparities, Baker insists on creating a system that ensures better outcomes for Black and Latinx students, surpassing previous failed approaches.

A recent RAND study revealed discrepancies in offering eighth-grade algebra nationwide, signaling room for improvement in access to advanced mathematics. While the educational landscape continues to evolve, the debate surrounding algebra in middle schools underscores the ongoing quest for parity and excellence in math education.

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