I’ve joked a few times that this nation’s policies on education don’t add up. But it turns out it’s the kids who can’t add – or do algebra – reports the Los Angeles Times in Part II of a series on the dropout epidemic.

Algebra is the primary reason most kids drop out of the Los Angeles Unified school system, the Times reports. Nearly 44 percent of 48,000 ninth-graders flunked this required math course in 2004, which is twice the rate of those who fail English.

What’s really upsetting about this story is how the district knows its students are having a problem, but keep sending them back to the same teachers over and over. The photos reveal that these kids were out of the picture long ago.

While a few schools have tried alternative methods to help kids learn algebra, most fear doing so because it might invite district audits and penalties, reports the Times. And standards are scheduled to be tightened soon.

Equally scarier is how some experts think the algebra requirement should simply be waived. The argument: not all careers need strong math skills. That’s just baloney. Do other first world nations allow nearly half of the students to skip algebra?

Let’s face it, America is failing these kids. We can blame parents if we want to, but something more is going on here; something deeper than just bad parenting. These kids are at least showing up for school and going to classes – until they ultimately give up – but for some reason they are not learning the material.

Is it bad teaching? Maybe it’s class overcrowding? Or was it because they were never taught basic skills in elementary school and junior high? Is it too much TV? Too much junk food? Or is it cultural rot in which the value of education simply has been lost on this generation? Maybe it’s all of the above?

What do you think?

For me, failing algebra in high school was simply due to a really bad teacher. I took it a second time from an equally bad teacher, but managed to get a C.

I took Algebra II during summer school at a local community college. Awesome teacher, and I got an A. Best thing is that I understood what he was teaching.

Once in college, I took Calculus from another incredibly gifted teacher who could actually TEACH us young adults. And again, I received an A.

So, to me, it was all about the teachers presenting the material in a way that all the kids could understand it. Most teachers don't care to do this.

Posted by: Phil | Tuesday, January 31, 2006 at 02:48 AM

unfortunately, our experience has been that too many elementary school teachers don't like math, so they don't teach it effectively and have a bad attitude toward math. This is like a downward spiral, as long as you don't require strong math skills in elementary and other teachers, the spiral continues downwards...

Posted by: chip | Tuesday, January 31, 2006 at 05:46 AM

I had a math teacher (20 years ago now) who didn't bother teaching the math. He would just kind of ramble on about his life for the first 50 minutes of every period, treating us as unpaid pschotherapists, and then assign a bunch of homework in the last 5 minutes. I was one of the fortunate ones who loved math anyway and figured it all out, but I'm sure the nation lost a huge number of potentially skilled future workers that year.

My oldest is only in 3rd grade so I can't tell what things are like now, at least yet, plus I've moved to Israel, which just layers so many more problems on top of the basics that I'm not even sure my children will pass lunch. That's a different story though.

Posted by: AbbaGav | Tuesday, January 31, 2006 at 07:59 AM

Phil: I was lucky. Math came pretty easily to me. But my teachers were upset with me, because I was bored. So they put me in self-study algebra by 6th grade. I finished calculus in high school, but by then it was becoming difficult for me.

I can only imagine what would have happened had someone noticed my math skills and helped me develop them.

Chip: Sadly, that makes sense. This nation is working hard at becoming second-rate.

AbbaGay: Okay, the story about using kids for emotional healing is just frightening. And welcome to my site. I looked at yours and take it you found me via jrants?

Posted by: brettdl | Tuesday, January 31, 2006 at 08:31 AM

As a former teacher, I tend to place more responsibility on the parents than the teacher. Having a poor teacher certainly doesn't help, and the problem should be addressed, but parents can do a lot to counteract poor teaching.

School, especially math, takes work. Many of the students I saw simply weren't willing to do the work. Ultimately, education is the parents' and students' responsibility. If the teacher stinks, and the situation isn't going to change, should I just let my son fail Algebra and blame the teacher?

Posted by: Jared | Tuesday, January 31, 2006 at 08:36 AM

Jared, I agree that parents are a large part of the problem. There is no getting around it. But my new mantra is that while parents fail kids, our educational system cannot.

History is replete with examples why it's dangerous for society to allow its population to be under-educated. That's how bad leaders get elected; that's why civilizations fall apart.

But as I mentioned in a recent post, if we had left it up to parents, we still would polio and measles running rampant in this country. The same goes for education. If we leave it solely up to parents, huge social disparity will continue to worsen.

So it is my contention that a successful society needs to make up the difference when parents fail. I don't mean telling people what to believe. I just mean making sure each generation of kids get the tools they need to succeed in life. Math. English. Science. How to do your frigging taxes.

If we fail our kids, more than half our population will eventually live in poverty. Crime problems will worsen. Our world leadership in culture and science will falter. We will become a second-rate nation.

So our society needs to make a decision: stick with this belief that it's all up to the parents and see what happens. Or decide that each kid has potential, and help them live up to it no matter how bad the parenting.

Posted by: brettdl | Tuesday, January 31, 2006 at 10:27 AM

I think it's the elementary and middle school teachers. My mom taught 6th grade math for several years and most of the incoming kids didn't know their fact tables much less have the rote memorization needed to build other skills onto.

I had a rough time in math that started in 7th grade with a teach yourself style teacher. We just worked our way thru the book on our own and only got instruction if we went up to his desk on our own initiative. He also practiced public humiliation for kids that didn't do well. He held up one of my tests and told the class his pen ran out of red ink while he was grading. Do you think I ever went up to his desk for help again? No. And he was my 8th grade math teacher as well. Once I fell behind at that point I was never able to get good grades in math again. Even though I had 2 years of calculus by the time I graduated from high school, it was by the seat of my pants only and nothing sunk in.

I don't think you can blame the parents for kids failing Algebra. I have two college educated parents who could not help at all with 7th grade math or anything past that. (this was prior to my mom getting her second bachelors and becoming a math teacher)

Posted by: Rayne of Terror | Wednesday, February 01, 2006 at 06:56 AM

Rayne, I think your story reveals a lot about what is wrong with our public educational system and that it is not just a problem with parents.

It's also interesting, how many comments on this post allude to former teachers. It sounds like the "system" is grinding up a lot of people on both sides of the blackboard.

Posted by: brettdl | Wednesday, February 01, 2006 at 07:33 AM

My 11-year-old stepkid, after being reprimanded by my wife for his poor math grade, responded with the argument that he doesn't really need to do well in math since he's going to be a professional motorcycle rider when he grows up.

Kind of sad and scary to think there are actually some adults who are using same twisted, convoluted logic of an 11-year-old to come up with a solution to the problem.

Posted by: Gooch | Wednesday, February 01, 2006 at 05:57 PM

Tell him he'll need math skills to count all his loot from motorcycle riding. That, or take him to a hospital where the bikers are healing nicely.

Posted by: brettdl | Wednesday, February 01, 2006 at 11:05 PM

I got a C+ in Algebra my 8th grade year. The next year, and all following years, plus all the procedding ones I got A+ in all my math courses. Bad teachers can screw anything up.

Posted by: Autumn | Thursday, February 02, 2006 at 01:14 PM

Yes, that does seem to be the case. I guess schools have no quality control.

Posted by: brettdl | Thursday, February 02, 2006 at 01:17 PM

I am a single mother of three boys and have recently started to college and algerbra is killing me. At first I had a really bad teacher, and now I have a great teacher,but I feel that I am being rushed. I just start to grasp one concept and we are pushed into something else, I want to know how to do it but we are moving to fast. Three sections in one day is too much. Not to mention I am thirty six years old and times have changed. I guess it's time for a tutor either that or I drop the class and start over next semester. The thing that gets me is I have been in the work force for many years and have never used much of what we are learning. My oldest son is 16 and hates math for the same reasons. I was and am good with math but why are we required to learn something we may never use.You know what they say, "if you don't use it you Loose it". Well if after 20+ years things should speak for thereselves. We have gotten out of control with math.x+y+z=A!!! I mean come on really.

Posted by: Kelly | Thursday, February 16, 2006 at 11:16 AM

I sympathize, Kelly. But look at it this way: you're planning a long car drive with the kids. If you're traveling 1,200 miles and your top speed is 75 miles per hour, how long will it take you?

Let's say the trip is from New York to Miami non-stop, and you start out at 6 a.m. Monday, at about what time will you pass Atlanta?

If your car gets 22 miles per gallon of gas, and your tank holds 15 gallons, how much gas will you need to get there? And if gas is $2.69 a gallon, how much can you expect to pay total?

You solve for "x" every day of your life. When you calculate 30% off at a clearance sale, or the price per diaper in the grocery store or quickly add a running tally of items in your shopping cart, you are solving for "x" each time.

A business owner solves for "x" when she figures out how many widgets she needs to sell to make a profit. "A" might equal her payroll, B = rent payments, C = utilities and other overhead, etc.

Algebra doesn't seem relevant to our every day lives because it's taught without imagination or clarity. But it is a vital skill that you need EVERY SINGLE DAY, even when calculating how much bandwidth you need if your blog becomes too popular, and how much more it'll cost, and how much advertising you'll need to make the blog break even.

Examples abound. Hope that helps.

Posted by: Anne | Thursday, February 16, 2006 at 11:56 AM

If you're traveling 1,200 miles and your top speed is 75 miles per hour, how long will it take you?

Depends on how many potty breaks the kids need!

Posted by: Phil | Friday, February 17, 2006 at 12:59 AM

That's what I was thinking, Phil.

Posted by: brettdl | Friday, February 17, 2006 at 06:09 AM