New research says the push to have students take algebra by 8th grade has hurt, not helped, students

Published: Monday, April 8 2013 10:20 p.m. MDT

An analysis of 2005 school transcripts by the National Center on Education Statistics found that school course titles often overstate the content and rigor of algebra classes. It showed that only 34 percent of Algebra I classes in U.S. public schools can be defined as rigorous. Students who took those more rigorous courses got significantly higher scores on national tests than those in non-rigorous courses, the analysis showed.

Non-rigorous algebra classes mingle pure algebra with a heavy dose of basic elementary and junior high school math, the study found. Research suggests that a one-size-fits-all approach that steers all students toward weakened algebra courses stunts the growth of top students.

A 2009 study published by the Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis Journal showed that the math achievement of high-performing students in Chicago dropped after all students were required to take Algebra I. The necessity of adjusting courses toward the pace of "middle students" in the classes could be the reason, wrote Education Week blogger Erik Robelen, quoting study author Takako Nomi.

Algebra for all?

At least one prominent voice proclaims that making every kid learn algebra is folly. That voice belongs to Andrew Hacking, an emeritus professor of political science at New York's Queens College who writes books about education.

Hacking ignited a firestorm of controversy when he wrote a 2012 opinion piece for The New York Times that claimed requiring algebra in secondary schools contributes to the U.S. dropout crisis. Hacking wrote that required algebra classes present an "onerous stumbling block" to students of all ethnicities and income levels whose talents lie in other directions.

"Today at 11 o'clock, 4 million 14-year-olds will be required to study algebra. I regard that as senseless, mindless, sadistic and irresponsible," Hacking told the Deseret News.

Data that shows algebra is needed for many 21st-century jobs is misused and inflated, Hacking said.

Hacking cites figures from Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce that show occupations in science, technology, engineering and technology fields will grow to only 5 percent of all jobs by 2018. But the Georgetown report he cited also shows that workers with STEM skills — math included — are in high demand in many occupations outside of traditional STEM fields. People with STEM training earn more than others even if they don't work in a STEM occupation, the study said.

Possible answers

Loveless said U.S. students should learn algebra, just as they should study history, Shakespeare, and other knowledge fields that may or may not be useful in a future workplace. However, they don't need to learn algebra in eighth grade, he said.

"There is a four-year difference between taking algebra in eighth grade, or taking it before graduating from high school," Loveless said. "Virtually all American students can take a real algebra class by the time they graduate."

Concerns about increasing opportunities for underserved students are justified, Loveless said, but shouldn't justify wrong decisions about when algebra is taught.

"There are eighth-graders who are black, Hispanic or disadvantaged who should be taking advanced math in eighth grade and currently are not," he said. "But the idea of making everyone in the eighth grade take advanced math could backfire with a substantial number of students. It may not be the best way to go about increasing equity."

Loveless said results of the Brookings study suggest that state and district policies about teaching algebra to all students in eighth grade should be reconsidered. Decisions about whether a student should follow an accelerated math sequence or approach algebra at a more relaxed pace should be made at the school level — by teachers and principals who know the students needs and abilities, he said.

EMAIL: cbaker@deseretnews.com

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