How Algebra Became a Flashpoint in Schools

How Algebra Became a Flashpoint in Schools

Controversy over school curriculum is nothing new. But one subject that has led to lawsuits, ballot measures and fighting among parents, teachers and district officials may come as a surprise: It’s algebra.

These days most students take the math course when they are high school freshmen — remember the quadratic formula? — but top-achieving students are sometimes offered the chance to take algebra a year earlier, in eighth grade. That has led to concerns that those students are being given an unfair advantage that might widen racial and economic disparities in the United States, as my colleague Troy Closson recently reported.

“The questions are so fraught because algebra functions as a crucial crossroads in the education system,” Troy wrote. “Students who fail it are far less likely to graduate. Those who take it early can take calculus by 12th grade, giving them a potential edge when applying to elite universities and lifting them toward society’s most high-status and lucrative professions.”

Read his fascinating article on how algebra became a national flashpoint.

To understand just how divisive the algebra question has become, take a look at San Francisco.

California once required that all eighth graders take algebra. But 10 years ago, the San Francisco schools stopped offering the course in eighth grade, hoping that doing so would help level the playing field for disadvantaged students. The decision prompted intense criticism.

There were protests and academic disputes. Parents sued the school district, arguing that making students wait until high school to take algebra would seriously harm their futures. And research showed that the change had little effect on racial inequities among San Francisco students.

In March, the city approved a ballot measure urging the school district to reinstate middle-school algebra. It passed with almost 82 percent of the vote. Now the school district says it will begin offering algebra in eighth grade in August.

“Schools really don’t know what to do,” Jon R. Star, an educational psychologist at Harvard, told Troy. “And it’s just leading to a lot of tension.”

General Sherman, a giant sequoia in Central California that is considered to be the world’s largest tree, passed a major health check this week, The Associated Press reported.

Researchers scaled the 275-foot tree to search for bark beetles, which have recently begun to kill giant sequoias. General Sherman seemed, for the moment, to have warded off the insects.

“The General Sherman tree is doing fine right now,” Anthony Ambrose, executive director of the Ancient Forest Society, told the news agency. “It seems to be a very healthy tree that’s able to fend off any beetle attack.”

Bark beetles pose an emerging threat to giant sequoias, as drought and fires amplified by climate change weaken the enormous trees and make them more susceptible to beetle attacks. According to The A.P., scientists have discovered about 40 sequoias, mostly in national parks, that have died from beetle infestations.

“Why are we seeing this change?” Clay Jordan, superintendent for Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, told the news outlet. “There’s a lot that we need to learn in order to ensure good stewardship of these trees for a long time.”

Thanks for reading. I’ll be back on Tuesday. Enjoy your long weekend. — Soumya

P.S. Here’s today’s Mini Crossword.

Halina Bennet and Kellina Moore contributed to California Today. You can reach the team at

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