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Posted at 10:06 PM ET, 12/01/2012

Heroes in war against dummy math

Like nearly all African Americans in 1954, 13-year-old Vinetta Jones knew the exasperating letdown of people thinking she was not capable of doing whatever it was she wanted to do.

Yet it was still a shock when she, an accomplished math student, walked into her all-white Detroit junior high class the first day of Algebra I and the teacher asked what she was doing there.

“This is my class,” Jones said.

The teacher said: “There must be a mistake. You wouldn’t be able to keep up.”

Forced to take Jones, the teacher never called on her even though she got an A on every test. Jones would earn a doctorate in educational psychology from the University of California at Berkeley, become an education school dean and lead statewide reform programs in California and North Carolina. With $32 million from College Board benefactors in the 1990s, she directed a program that broke the back of U.S. schools’ resistance to letting minorities, poor kids and other allegedly ill-prepared students take algebra and geometry.

Jones, a Howard University professor and former dean of its education school, lives in Prince George’s County. With inspiration and support from Montgomery County resident Sol H. Pelavin, until recently president of the Washington-based American Institutes for Research, she and thousands of educators proved that remedial arithmetic was mostly a waste, at least the way it was usually taught. Good teaching of algebra and geometry was better. Their Equity 2000 program is the subject of my new, short book, “The War Against Dummy Math: How Seven School Districts Changed U.S. Education by Embracing Algebra for All.”

Equity 2000 has not gotten much attention. I was unaware of it until Pelavin asked me if I wanted to write the book. Math education history is never a hot topic. But what Jones and Pelavin accomplished, with the backing of then-College Board President Donald Stewart, educates those who want to improve schools. It shows the power of research backed by an independent organization willing to help schools use it.

Equity 2000 began with a 56-page paper in 1990 by Pelavin and his colleague Michael Kane, “Changing the Odds: Factors Increasing Access to College.” Their study revealed a surprising correlation between high school course selection and college attendance for black and Hispanic students. More than 80 percent of those who took algebra and geometry in high school attended college, eliminating the usual gap between those minorities and whites.

Stewart and the College Board staff persuaded seven high-poverty, high-minority districts — Prince George’s, Providence, R.I., Milwaukee, Fort Worth, Nashville, and the adjoining San Jose and East Side high school districts in California — to require that all ninth-graders take first-year algebra and all 10th-graders take geometry or courses above that level. In return, the College Board paid to train teachers, build research and have districts share their experiences.

Jones became the Equity 2000 director. She had made a career of casting doubt on the theory of her Berkeley professor Arthur Jensen that blacks on average were genetically inferior to whites in intelligence. Jensen had told his students he was not demeaning anyone in class, but Jones said to herself: “Right. Just your mama and your daddy and all your folks.”

Equity 2000 made a difference. The portion of ninth-graders taking algebra or above in the seven districts jumped from 50 to 87 percent in six years. Tenth-graders taking geometry or above went from 39 to 67 percent. More ninth-graders (22,579) passed Algebra I in 1997 than the total enrolled in the course (18,934) in 1991. More 10th-graders (16,459) passed geometry in 1997 than took it in 1991 (12,524).

Few students take dummy math now, but raising proficiency is still a struggle, as I will explain next Monday with the story of Equity 2000 in Prince George’s County.

By  |  10:06 PM ET, 12/01/2012

 
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