Education Opinion

Algebra for All 8th Graders: Dropout Cure?

By Anthony Cody — July 15, 2008 2 min read
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A great deal of virtual ink has been spilled over the past week debating the merits of the California Board of Education’s decision to approve Governor Schwarzenegger’s proposal to require all 8th grade students to take Algebra.

Assistant U.S. Secretary of Education Kerri Briggs revealed her thinking to the Associated Press, saying “Kids are dropping out because they’re bored and they don’t feel like there’s enough challenge and expectations for them,” she said. “This may be exactly what they need to help spur achievement.”

This got me to wondering about the basis for this claim. The rising dropout rate has become everyone’s favorite reason for change. Is there research to support Ms. Briggs in this regard? Yes and no. I spent a few hours scouring the internet for research, and here is what I found.

This study summarizes the results of interviews with 500 dropouts, ages 16 to 25, and here are the reasons they gave for dropping out:

* 47% said classes were not interesting * 43% missed too many days to catch up * 45% entered high school poorly prepared by their earlier schooling * 69% said they were not motivated to work hard * 35% said they were failing * 32% said they left to get a job * 25% left to become parents * 22% left to take care of a relative
Two-thirds said they would have tried harder if more was expected from them.

This would seem to support Ms. Briggs’ suggestion that we should make classes more challenging, and requiring Algebra would seem to fit the bill. But these are 16 to 25 year-olds -- far beyond the age that will be directly affected by this new policy. How will this affect middle school students?

There were some other studies which raise some flags we may want to give heed.

The California Dropout Research Project has released a study: What Factors Predict High School Graduation in the Los Angeles Unified School District?

Of the academic experiences this study explored, failing courses, especially Algebra 1, had a particularly severe impact on the likelihood of graduating on time. Approximately half (49%) of the students failed at least one core academic class (mathematics, English language arts, science, and social science) during their middle school years, and over three fourths of students (77%) failed at least one academic core course during their high school years.

According to this report by Gregory Woods,

Poor academic performance is the single strongest school-related predictor of dropping out.

So it would seem that it is critically important to not only give students the opportunity to take Algebra, but also to make sure they are adequately prepared for it, and well-taught during it. Because if they do not succeed, they will have failed the rigorous challenge we have placed before them, and this will increase the likelihood that they will not finish high school.

And this is where things get complicated. I work with science teachers in the Oakland schools, and I know that at the middle school level, approximately half of our teachers are in their first or second year. The turnover is similar for middle school math teachers. This means many students in our schools are taught by novices who lack the experience needed to provide a rich and engaging math curriculum -- and sometimes there are even taught by substitutes, who generally deliver a very poor quality of instruction . This article in the Los Angeles Times describes similar circumstances there. Furthermore, with the state budget in trouble, the schools are staring in the face of a $4.8 billion budget cut – proposed by the same governor who has brought us Algebra for every 8th grader. So we have what seems to me a big disconnect. Ever higher mandates for our students and schools, and ever-diminishing resources with which to meet them.

UPDATE: In September, the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics issued a statement entitled “Algebra: What, When and For Whom.”

It states, in part:

Algebra When Ready
Only when students exhibit demonstrable success with prerequisite skills—not at a prescribed grade level—should they focus explicitly and extensively on algebra, whether in a course titled Algebra 1 or within an integrated mathematics curriculum. Exposing students to such coursework before they are ready often leads to frustration, failure, and negative attitudes toward mathematics and learning.
All students should have opportunities to develop algebraic reasoning.
Algebra is an important gateway to expanded opportunities. Because of the importance and power of algebra, all students should have opportunities to learn it. With high-quality teaching and suitable support, all students can be successful in their development and use of algebra.

Update #2: A California judge has issued an injunction blocking implementation of the 8th grade algebra mandate. An article in the SF Chronicle states:

The preliminary injunction prevents the state from enforcing the Algebra I policy while the case proceeds through the legal process. It was scheduled to go into effect in three years.
While the legal arguments were based on technicalities, O'Connell's opposition to the requirement has been more firmly grounded in his belief that state schools wouldn't be able to get kids ready for the requirement without significant resources - up to $3.1 billion for more teachers and remedial instruction, among other costs. That's a 6 percent increase to the state education budget even as the Legislature considers widespread midyear cuts for schools.
We cannot just tell our students and teachers the end goal and expect them to get there on their own," he said Friday. "Without additional funding, we're simply setting our students up for failure."

Update 3: Now, from Chicago, comes news that 9th grade Algebra for all is having many of the negative consequences discussed here:

While algebra enrollment increased across the district, the percentages of students failing math in 9th grade also rose after the new policy took effect.
By the same token, the researchers say, the change did not seem to lead to any significant test-score gains for students in math or in sizeable increases in the percentages of students who went on to take higher-level math courses later on in high school. While algebra enrollment increased across the district, the percentages of students failing math in 9th grade also rose after the new policy took effect.

So what do you think? Is Algebra for all 8th graders a good way to address the dropout crisis? What do we need to do to make this work?

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