Heroes in the war against dummy math
By Jay Mathews,
As a 13-year-old African American in 1954, 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 on 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 run statewide reform programs in California and North Carolina. With $32 million from College Board benefactors in the 1990s, she led 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 a former dean of its education school, lives in Prince George’s County. With support and guidance 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 math was largely a waste the way it was taught, that good teaching of algebra and geometry was better. Their Equity 2000 program is the subject of my short new 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. But what Jones and Pelavin accomplished, with the backing of then-College Board President Donald M. 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 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 them and whites.
Stewart and the College Board 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. In return, the College Board paid to train teachers and have districts share their experiences.
Jones became the executive director of Equity 2000 in 1991. 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 that 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 were enrolled in the course in 1991 (18,934). More 10th-graders (16,459) passed geometry in 1997 than took it in 1991 (12,524).
Few students now take dummy math, but raising math proficiency is still a struggle, as I will explain next Monday with the story of Equity 2000 in Prince George’s.
To read previous columns by Jay Mathews, go to washingtonpost.com/