# The trouble with algebra

My guest today is Debra Viadero, who reports on education research for Education Week and writes a daily blog,Inside School Research.

By Debra Viadero

Studies have long suggested that algebra is a “gateway” course. Students need to pass it in order to move on to more advanced mathematics--and they need to have at least a couple of higher-level math credits on their high school transcripts to make it into a competitive college.

That realization has led a growing number of school districts over the last couple of decades to try to ensure that all students, regardless of ability level, study the subject as early as possible, which in many cases means by 8th or 9th grade. Some newer research is beginning to suggest, however, that getting all students past the algebra hump has proved to be a knotty problem.

The best of that research is a study published late last year by the Consortium on Chicago School Research, an independent research group at the University of Chicago.

Its evaluation of the Chicago school system’s efforts to boost algebra course-taking found that more students completed the course by 9th grade as a result of the policy. But failure rates increased, grades dropped slightly, test scores didn’t improve and students were no more likely to attend college when they left the system than they were before the policy took effect.

The school system tried to remedy the problem in 2003 by requiring students with weak math skills in 8th grade to take two periods of algebra the following year--a regular algebra class and a second “support” class. The consortium researchers found in a subsequent study, however, that this had a mixed, and less-than-desired effect. Standardized test scores rose substantially for the students in the double-dose classes, but failure rates rose among all students, the good performers as well as the struggling students.

So the students who were targeted by the policy learned more, but they weren’t any more likely to pass the course. Elaine M. Allensworth, one of the lead authors of the study, said the high failure rates may have come about because the “double dose” classes ended up concentrating more students with attendance and behavioral problems in the same class.

The results don’t mean that all efforts to boost algebra course-taking will yield disappointing results, but they do suggest a conundrum for school districts: How do you get all students through algebra without watering down the content for higher-achieving students?

Equally important, how do you do it without reverting to tracking students into separate high-ability or low-ability classes? Like many topics in education, this is a subject on which much more research is needed.

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By
Valerie Strauss
| February 18, 2010; 6:30 AM ET

Categories:
Guest Bloggers, Math, Research
| Tags:
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Posted by: valerie11 | February 18, 2010 9:17 AM | Report abuse

How many of us would have a high school diploma if we had been required to be members of the football team or the choir or take a ballet class? For that matter, I would never have been able to graduate if the home-ec or shop requirements that my younger brother was subject to had been in effect for me! If the schools wanted, they could design a curriculum that no one could pass, or that everyone could. But would it mean anything?

I passed algebra. (The smartest kid in the class was my next-door neighbor and sat with me on the bus each morning. Need I say more?) But from an early age I was not interested in any of the fields for which I would need higher math, and I deliberately chose my college and major so I would not have to take any college math.

Maybe, instead of the high schools debating when to teach algebra to all students, the colleges should debate whether they should require it of applicants.

Maybe instead of debating

Posted by: sideswiththekids | February 18, 2010 1:44 PM | Report abuse

(Sorry; part of the last paragraph disappeared.)

How many of us would have a high school diploma if we had been required to be members of the football team or the choir or take a ballet class? For that matter, I would never have been able to graduate if the home-ec or shop requirements that my younger brother was subject to had been in effect for me! If the schools wanted, they could design a curriculum that no one could pass, or that everyone could. But would it mean anything?

I passed algebra. (The smartest kid in the class was my next-door neighbor and sat with me on the bus each morning. Need I say more?) But from an early age I was not interested in any of the fields for which I would need higher math, and I deliberately chose my college and major so I would not have to take any college math.

Maybe, instead of the high schools debating when to teach algebra to all students, the colleges should debate whether they should require it of applicants.

Maybe instead of the high schools debating when to teach algebra to kids, most of whom will never use it once they are out of high school, the colleges should be debating whether to continue requring it of applicants.

Posted by: sideswiththekids | February 18, 2010 1:49 PM | Report abuse

I took algebra in high school and heartily hated every minute of it. My brain simply didn't work well with algebraic concepts-my personal strengths were in the humanities, and I graduated from college with a B.A. You can go to college without being a math whiz.

Why insist that it is a must course for all students?

Posted by: sanderling5 | February 18, 2010 2:11 PM | Report abuse

I teach Algebra, and I'm wondering why you think we need more research? We've been giving a statewide math test to our 10th graders for over a decade. It is based on Algebra and Geometry. Over the past decade 50% of our students have failed to meet the standard consistently. Why is it so incomprehensible that half of our students will struggle with Algebra at the age of 14 or 15?

Posted by: sequimteacher | February 18, 2010 6:20 PM | Report abuse

Most people don't consider algebra to be "higher math"... I don't know how you can take care of your personal finances without using skills from algebra. But, I guess if people could take care of their personal finances, the economy wouldn't be in the toilet.

Posted by: someguy100 | February 18, 2010 8:49 PM | Report abuse

I agree with sequimteacher. Why do you need more research? Why not build up the arithmetic skills that are so sadly overlooked in K-6 for what is laughingly called "deep understanding of math"? What kids need is proficiency in the foundations of arithmetic. Unfortunately, the ed school thoughtworld prevails that procedural fluency eclipses any conceptual understanding. The thoughtworld has it that if you are not doing inquiry-based math, then kids are being taught by rote. The complex problems that students in Singapore are able to solve by grade six are pooh-poohed by the edu-meisters as "mere exercises" that are just applied rote procedures. If they are so mechanical, how come our US students can't do them?

Posted by: BarryGarelick | February 19, 2010 1:54 PM | Report abuse

"Equally important, how do you do it without reverting to tracking students into separate high-ability or low-ability classes?"

Equally important?

How is a philosophical commitment to "radical inclusion" equally important to the effective teaching of algebra to all students?

The fact is, to parents, (many) teachers, disciplinary specialists, and taxpayers, teaching all students at all levels of preparation inside the same classroom is not important at all. Quite the contrary.

In an effective system, the students who are behind need to be **accelerated;** they need to 'run faster' than the students ahead of them in order to catch up. Accelerating the learning of students who are behind is what Siegfried Engelmann's Direct Instruction curricula are designed to do, and careful placement of students in the curriculum is part of the DI approach.

Speaking as a parent and a taxpayer, the only thing that matters to me is teaching every student effectively.

Posted by: cijohn | February 19, 2010 1:55 PM | Report abuse

Re: tracking students into low-ability or high-ability tracks.

What if the Red Cross swim classes were conducted like the public schools? Ten-year-old nonswimmers would be in the same class with 10-year-old Olympic hopefuls. We would give merit raises to the teacher with the fewest drownings. If there were too many drownings, the answer would obviously be to keep all students in the water longer.

Why do we believe that some people are talented musically, some are talented artistically, and some are talented athletically, and they should be allowed to learn just as fast as they can, but no one is talented academically in or in a particular subject and everyone has to plod along at the same pace or they aren't educated. (Not to mention the fact that the best system in the world will not make a mathematician out of a student who prefers language arts.)

Posted by: sideswiththekids | February 20, 2010 2:50 PM | Report abuse

Gee, back in the "old days", everyone was required to take algebra in grades 7-8-9.

Some kids struggled, some did great, but everybody learned enough to use, and algebra is essential whether you're a mathematician, carpenter, plumber, beautician, nurse, or even a lumberjack.

Just because somebody isn't gifted in math doesn't mean they should study algebra. It's the struggle that defines character. Not everything has to be fun and easy. Sometimes it's good to have something that you don't think you can do, to prove to yourself that you can accomplish something.

Posted by: Ombudsman1 | February 21, 2010 12:52 PM | Report abuse

Why doesn't the debate begin with why we suddenly assume that everyone needs a competitive college? I've read (and agree) that one of the worst things we've done as a society over the last couple of decades is convince everyone that they need to go to college. By pushing students who shouldn't be in college, we end up with students who are worse off - they're the ones who drop out of school before they get a degree, but now suddenly have thousands and thousands of dollars of debt. They'd have been better off getting a job out of high school than picking up debt without the degree.

Second, why do we make teachers study pedagogy and educational psychology if it's just going to be ignored anyway? I was pushed into advanced math in fifth grade, and it caught up to me in high school. The end result was that I took just as much math as was required, and skipped physics for fear of the math, and tenth grade (Alg II and honors chem) was hell. That was the end of math (and, by extension, science) for me. A few years later, I'm sitting in college learning about the stages of learning and brain development, and wondering how much easier algebra and chemistry would have been if I'd been in eleventh grade instead of tenth - when my abstract thinking skills were more developed.

I despise this idea that everyone needs algebra at the same time. If my 8th grader is ready for calculus, then I sincerely hope you're teaching my child calculus. And if my child can't do fractions yet, then I want my kid to be learning fractions in 8th grade. We would truly be "leaving no child behind" if we went back to the individualism that used to be the hallmark of our great nation, rather than the communist idea that everyone is exactly equal and the same, and should be doing the same thing at the same time.

Tracking? Bring it on. I'd much rather be surrounded by kids on my same level. I absolutely despised being the only kid that didn't get it in my math class, but it wasn't any better to be the only kid that DID get it in my language class.

Posted by: LadybugLa | February 21, 2010 12:55 PM | Report abuse

The comments to this entry are closed.

Taking algebra just for the sake of taking it early BEFORE a student is ready for it is a waste of everyone's time and energy. Students who fall in the "Basic" category repeatedly, are not going to be ready for algebra at grade level, much less early. Taking algebra 2-3 years early and not "getting it" isn't going to help a student in more advanced math courses. Simply passing algebra isn't sufficient..."getting it" is much more important. Let's stop this nonsense!