Sunday, May 17, 2009

Public School Math in Peril

For those of you outside the area, there is a serious state budget battle raging here in California. It’s nothing new. There is always a budget battle raging here in California. It was supposed to be cured six years ago after the Terminator (aka Arnold Schwarzenegger) swept into the governor’s office in what was arguably an unwarranted recall election to remove the just-reelected Gray Davis. Arnold accused Davis of condoning government waste and of instilling an expensive car registration tax. He promised to cut the waste in government and balance the budget, bringing health back to California’s coffers. But gee, all that never happened and the state is in worse shape than when Arnold won the recall (and the car tax is back too!). To be fair, Arnold’s term saw an unparalleled world economic downturn. But to be equally fair, Davis was conned by that little Texas energy swindler Enron, a debacle that cost California billions and was hyped by Arnold in coming up with reasons why Davis should go.

So what does all this have to do with math? Well, the self-proclaimed education-friendly Arnold is rumoring to cut funding of California schools to even lower levels, an action that will push student’s test scores below their already dismal ranking. Rumor has it that 9th grade math will be canceled in the near future.

Imagine that, no math in 9th grade! 9th grade is when I had my metamorphosis in my journey through public education. Prior to 9th grade, I was a very so-so, average student in math. I had no confidence, or interest for that matter, in math whatsoever, but then came the delightful experiment in education I became part of.

My junior high school, Patrick Henry in Granada Hills was one of two schools in the country in the late 60s to receive a federal grant to set up a fully equipped computer lab to see how the students would adapt to using computers in school. Now please take note of the year, 1968. This was a time of mainframe computers and mini-computers were just showing up in the business world. Public education, at the time, had no more exposure to computers than rocket science. We had a brand new DEC PDP-8e minicomputer in the lab and we could use it any way we wanted. Us kids adapted to computers in an instant, and surpassed the teachers’ own limited knowledge by a mile. I turned into a smart and admittedly precocious 14 year-old seemingly overnight. My confidence in non-computer subjects, most importantly math, also quickly benefited.

9th grade was when I took algebra, and I went from a solid C student the year before computers, to straight A’s after computers. If 9th grade math had been canceled that year, I probably would have languished the rest of my life with average math ability. It is amazing what confidence and momentum can do for a young person, and that is really the point with the possibility that California might cancel 9th grade math. Kids need math for basic problem solving and analytical skills. To take a year off, would be harmful and could in fact push some students into a math tailspin. For any readers living in California, don’t let this happen. Use your voting rights as a citizen to make sure the politicians understand your priorities.

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