Until recently, high schools offered a range of programs. Students seen as academically able were placed in college-prep classes. Others were funneled into vocational courses in which they learned such skills as auto mechanics and office technology.
Then, about a decade ago, the pendulum began to swing as the state decided to raise academic standards for high school graduation.
The concept of algebra for all also was meant to elevate the level of U.S. high school students, whose math performance has long trailed that of peers in other industrialized countries where algebra is introduced at earlier grade levels.
Eager to close this competitive chasm, education and business leaders in California sought to re-engineer the state's approach to math. They produced new math standards they believed would foster a "rising tide of excellence."
This meant teaching algebra earlier, as soon as eighth grade for some students, even if instructors questioned whether younger students could handle abstract concepts.
"We didn't regard any of this as extreme," Stanford University mathematician James Milgram said recently, defending the 1997 math standards he helped write. "We need competent people in this country. We're on our way to [becoming] a second-rate economic power."
Legislators joined the charge in 1999, creating a high school exit exam with algebra questions, which takes effect this spring. They then enacted the law requiring algebra for graduation, starting with the Class of 2004, to prepare students for the exam.
To its staunchest advocate in the Legislature, algebra stood for higher expectations and new opportunities.
"We have a problem with a high dropout rate. You don't address it by making it easier to get through and have the meaning of the diploma diluted," said state Sen. Chuck Poochigian (R-Fresno), who wrote the algebra graduation law. "It should be a call to action not to lower standards but to find ways to inspire. Our future depends on it."
'I Give Up'
Whether requiring all students to pass algebra is a good idea or not, two things are clear: Schools have not been equipped to teach it, and students have not been equipped to learn it.
Secondary schools have had to rapidly expand algebra classes despite a shortage of credentialed math teachers.
The Center for the Future of Teaching & Learning in Santa Cruz found that more than 40% of eighth-grade algebra teachers in California lack a math credential or are teaching outside their field of expertise; more than 20% of high school math teachers are similarly unprepared.
Recruitment programs and summer math institutes for teachers have been scaled back or eliminated because of budget cuts.
"It's a real collision of circumstance, and students are now having to bear the brunt of public policy gone awry," said Margaret Gaston, executive director of the Santa Cruz research center.
High school math instructors, meanwhile, face crowded classes of 40 or more students — some of whom do not know their multiplication tables or how to add fractions or convert percentages into decimals.
Birmingham teacher Steve Kofahl said many students don't understand that X can be an abstract variable in an equation and not just a letter of the alphabet.
Birmingham math coach Kathy De Soto said she was surprised to find something else: students who still count on their fingers.