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It never added up: Restricting algebra access in school to improve advanced math education
Rex Ridgeway was among the advocates for San Francisco Unified School District to offer 8th grade algebra because his granddaughter Joselyn loves math. Waiting until 9th grade would have kept Joselyn from reaching calculus by high school graduation. Rex fears this would limit his granddaughter’s ability to succeed in college, as he notes that UC San Diego has 78 majors that begin with calculus.

Every student is to achieve grade level standards, feels safe, and is supported to realize individual success  The vision statement of a one of the 60 largest of California school districts

Sales Force. Reddit. Instacart. Uber. Twitch. Snap.

You’d expect to find such tech companies and more headquartered in a city where the school system’s STEM — science, technology, engineering, mathematics — programs aren’t shacked.

But then, San Francisco isn’t your typical city.

The San Francisco Unified School District decided the best way to open the door to an education path that could lead to well-paying tech jobs was to delay access to algebra.

In doing so, the district was not driven by a vision statement that basically said their job is to help every student, regardless of their social-economic background, achieve their potential.

The decision to eliminate algebra in middle school was driven by the concept of social justice.

Specific minority groups weren’t taking and completing calculus in high enough numbers before graduating from high school.

Data gleaned nationally shows 48 percent of Asian American students, 27 percent of white students, 14 percent of Latino students and 11 percent of Black students take calculus in high school.

But instead of trying to change those numbers by working to elevate the absorption of math skills at an earlier age of students pigeon-holed by race, San Francisco in 2014 opted to bar all students from taking algebra until they were in high school.

The decision was the optimal way to achieve political equality goals — as opposed to individual student success — by not allowing any student to take algebra until the ninth grade.

They have now decided to abandon the social justice approach.

And it wasn’t on their own accord.

Parents — especially those whose families have Asian roots — protested the original decision to stop teaching algebra in the 8th grade.

Their efforts ran the gamut from petitions and a ballot measure to a lawsuit.

The school district vigorously defended their decision over the past decade.

It included data that showed fewer students, across all racial lines, failed algebra when they all started taking it in high school

Last year, the data that really counted to prove whether the strategy of eliminating 8th grade algebra would result in more students who the district checked either the Black or Latino boxes worked was studied.

The data was compiled by Stanford University researchers.

It showed the district’s goal of having more Black and Latino students taking advanced placement classes barely changing from pre-2014 levels.

Education guided by social justice and not powered by the desire to treat students as  individuals who should have the help needed to maximize their personal potential was not limited just to algebra.

The district in 2021 decided merit based admission to Lowell High School, an elite high-academic performing school, would no longer take place.

The reason?

There were too many students that were Asian or white and not enough that were Black or Latino performing well enough academically to gain admission.

To solve the problem, the board embraced a quick temporary fix that did nothing to improve the educational foundation in lower grades needed to succeed and maximize their potential with what Lowell High has offer.

They switched to a lottery for admission.

It was akin to applying a Band-Aid per se to a weak ankle to make it stronger.

The board  dropped the lottery admissions at Lowell High a year later due to parent pushback.

There is little doubt there are  inequities in public school performances based not just on individual social-economic situations, but also those tied to how racial classes have been treated over the years.

Given schools should be educating individuals, the social justice bandwagon is the least likely way to develop the maximum impact on individual students during the minimum 12 years they  are expected to spend getting an education in California schools.

In a way, it is an approach that inadvertently dictates that schools “dumb down” students of all races in order to try and create some sort of equality in raw numbers as opposed to building a solid foundation that gives them the academic tools to take full advantage to access the best possible educational outcome.

The San Francisco Unified algebra decision in 2014 meant Black and Latino 8th graders ready to take STEM gateway classes were barred from doing so, just like their Asian and white classmates.

It demonstrated using public schools for broad based social justice goals that can harm some students while helping others within a particular racial category is reckless.

It can clearly hurt students.

San Francisco, after finding out reducing educational offerings didn’t up minority numbers, is now working on re-implementing algebra in 8th grade by the 2025-2026 school year.

SF Unified Superintendent Matt Wayne notes the goal is to “increase the number of underrepresented students in higher level math.”

It’s a vision still rooted in social justice.

It will require real work on the part of the school district to resist easy solutions that put chains on the academic performance of other students while trying to raise the tide.

It is safe to say the mindset of San Francisco Unified is not quite where the vision statement at the start of the column is at?

The district?

Here’s a hint: While San Francisco Unified was among the last districts in California to return to in-class learning during the pandemic, the one tied to the vision statement was among the first to do so.

The vision statement belongs to Manteca Unified School District.


This column is the opinion of editor, Dennis Wyatt, and does not necessarily represent the opinions of The Bulletin or 209 Multimedia. He can be reached at