Dumbing Down Our Schools : Eliminating basic math concepts and promoting children who don’t learn translates to diminished opportunity for all.

Betty Raskoff Kazmin teaches at the Los Angeles Center for Enriched Studies. Her e-mail address is <pemdasbk></pemdasbk>

I have been teaching pre-algebra and Algebra I to students in grades seven through nine since the 1960s. I began in the Los Angeles Unified School District, took a decade off to raise children and earn a law degree, then continued at a private school, where I taught hundreds of young women traditional pre-algebra and Algebra I. They progressed from timid seventh-graders claiming, “I’m not very good at math, Mrs. Kazmin,” to confident, capable ninth-graders who had mastered a tough, traditional curriculum and were ready to excel in subsequent math and science courses, SAT exams and prestigious colleges. The curriculum I taught these young women in the 1980s was essentially the same as I had taught in a public junior high school in the 1960s.

In 1989, motivated by a 50% increase in salary at a time when two daughters were in college and a young son faced years of tuition, I moved back to the LAUSD, to the city’s original and highly acclaimed magnet school. Given pre-algebra and Algebra I classes, I discovered the dramatic changes that time had wrought in public school math courses. An emphasis on absolute democracy was so fiercely mandated by district policy that few students could be given math lessons appropriate to their individual needs.

Pre-algebra is the course that pulls together all the previously mastered concepts and skills (fractions, percentages, proportions, geometry, graphing and problem-solving) and combines them with a heavy dose of such algebraic topics as negative numbers, solving equations and using rational numbers.


Students who succeed in a traditional pre-algebra course often have covered the material in the first two or three chapters of their Algebra I book, albeit in a less intensive manner. This allows them to begin Algebra I confidently and successfully. But when a pre-algebra class has 35 randomly selected eighth graders ranging from honors to remedial students, there is no way to gear the instruction or the textbook to those students’ needs.

And when every ninth-grader is then moved into Algebra I under the district’s “equal right to fail algebra” policy, the situation becomes extremely frustrating for all. In overcrowded algebra classes, I have had highly gifted, shy seventh-graders mixed together with remedial ninth- and 10th-graders who greatly enjoyed disrupting the class. But at least we had decent textbooks.

Finally, a few years ago, our school received permission to put remedial ninth-grade math students into special classes, thus enabling regular Algebra I classes to better move forward. But meantime, California’s elementary schools were being subjected to radical changes: Since many young children experienced difficulty mastering basic skills like multiplication, fractions, formulas, algorithms and equations, the state decided that mastery of those skills was no longer necessary. Elementary students began playing with brightly colored plastic pieces, practicing “guess and check” problem-solving and engaging in cooperative “fuzzy math.” These changes are now working their way into the middle and upper grade levels.

My math department has seen the future, and it is frightening. We wanted to enrich our pre-algebra course further by selecting a stronger textbook. Imagine our shock upon learning that the California Board of Education has adopted no pre-algebra books at all this school year and is planning to phase out traditional pre-algebra and Algebra I courses entirely.

The school district’s superintendent has just published his call to action for improving student achievement by 2000. A prominent goal is that all remedial courses for ninth- to 12th-grade students will be eliminated. Once again, all students of a given age will be combined in college preparatory math classes, regardless of their preparedness or ability. Meanwhile, as part of a lawsuit settlement, 65,000 learning disabled students are to be integrated into regular classrooms in schools where no remedial courses will be permitted.

We are engaged in a downward spiral of lowering expectations, dumbing down textbooks and curricula, struggling to provide equal educational opportunity to every student even if that translates into a diminished opportunity for all. These are our public schools, the last, best hope for most of California’s children. Parents--and all of us--should be concerned.