School & District Management

Algebra-for-All Policy Found to Raise Rates Of Failure in Chicago

By Debra Viadero — March 06, 2009 3 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Findings from a study involving 160,000 Chicago high school students offer a cautionary tale of what can happen, in practice, when school systems require students to take algebra at a particular grade level.

Buoyed by recommendations from national mathematics experts, growing numbers of districts and states, such as New York and Texas, have begun requiring students to study algebra in 9th grade. Notably, California recently moved to require the subject even earlier, in 8th grade, although the policy faces legal roadblocks.

The Chicago school district was at the forefront of that movement in 1997 when it instituted a mandate for 9th grade algebra as part of an overall effort to ensure that its high school students would be “college ready” upon graduation.

The policy change may have yielded unintended effects, according to researchers from the Consortium on Chicago School Research, based at the University of Chicago. 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.

“This policy that Chicago tried in 1997 seems to be sweeping the country now and not a lot of thought is being given to how it really affects schools,” Elaine M. Allensworth, the lead researcher on the study, said in an interview.

District Responds

Her co-author, Takako Nomi, presented the findings here in Virginia on March 3 at the annual meeting of the Society for Research on Educational Effectiveness, a group based in Evanston, Ill., that promotes cause-and-effect studies.

“It’s not surprising that you’re going to see an increase in [failure] rates if you raise the instructional requirements and you don’t raise the supports,” said Michael Lach, the director of the school system’s office of high school teaching.

Over the past seven or eight years, he said, the district has tried to boost student-success rates under the policy, which remains in place. Steps include developing curricular materials introducing students to algebra concepts in grades K-8, requiring struggling 9th graders to take double periods of algebra, and providing more professional development in math to middle and high school teachers, Mr. Lach said.

The consortium researchers said their findings grow out of an ongoing study of the district’s across-the-board efforts to upgrade academic requirements for all students. They plan to publish a report on the effects of the double algebra periods in April.

The scholars based their findings on data gathered on 11 waves of students entering 9th grade from 1994 to 2005.

They compared changes within schools from cohort to cohort during a period before the policy took effect with a period several years afterward. They also compared schools that underwent the changes with those that already had an “algebra for all” policy in place.

Effects Varied by Ability

The researchers calculate that, for a school that saw an increase of 20 percentage points in algebra enrollment due to the requirement, for example, the percentage of 9th graders failing math would increase by 3 percentage points for students in the lowest-ability quartile, 3.5 percentage points for students in the next quartile, and 8.9 percent for students in the quartile of students who were labeled to be of “average” ability.

The failure rate was not appreciably higher, though, among the highest-ability students, most of whom would presumably have taken algebra anyway.

“We thought the average-ability kids would be better able to handle algebra than the lowest-ability kids,” said Ms. Allensworth. “But it seems to have hurt their outcomes more than the lowest-ability kids.” One possible explanation, the researchers suggested, is that the lowest group had a higher failure rate before the policy took effect.

The lack of test-score growth, Ms. Nomi said, may be because math classes included children with a wider range of ability levels following the change, which might have spurred some teachers to water down their teaching.

Whether similar sorts of algebra mandates—or efforts to teach algebra at even younger ages—would have the same impact in other locations, however, is unclear, said Leland S. Cogan, a senior researcher at the Center for Research on Math and Science Education at Michigan State University in Lansing.

“Some research suggests the longer you wait to expose students to algebra the more difficulty they have making the transition,” he said.

Related Tags:

A version of this article appeared in the March 11, 2009 edition of Education Week as Algebra-for-All Policy Found to Raise Rates Of Failure in Chicago

Events

Jobs October 2021 Virtual Career Fair for Teachers and K-12 Staff
Find teaching jobs and other jobs in K-12 education at the EdWeek Top School Jobs virtual career fair.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Data Webinar
Using Integrated Analytics To Uncover Student Needs
Overwhelmed by data? Learn how an integrated approach to data analytics can help.

Content provided by Instructure
Classroom Technology Webinar How Pandemic Tech Is (and Is Not) Transforming K-12 Schools
The COVID-19 pandemic—and the resulting rise in virtual learning and big investments in digital learning tools— helped educators propel their technology skills to the next level. Teachers have become more adept at using learning management

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

School & District Management Opinion Transformational vs. Instructional Leadership. Which Is Better?
Research has fomented a debate focusing on the impact of transformational vs. instructional leadership. Has COVID changed our minds?
Sean Slade & Alyssa Gallagher
3 min read
Transformational
Shutterstock
School & District Management Why Students Ghost the Day After Halloween (And What Schools Can Do About It)
Missing school on Nov. 1 can for some students lead to chronic absenteeism and academic problems down the road.
4 min read
Dressed in his dinosaur Halloween costume, Martin, 4, attends a class Zoom for his public school prekindergarten class, Friday, Oct. 30, 2020, in Washington. Martin chose to be a "deinonychus" for Halloween, and wore the costume in celebration the day before the holiday.
Dressed in his dinosaur Halloween costume, Martin, 4, attends a class Zoom for his public school prekindergarten class, in Washington.
Jacquelyn Martin/AP
School & District Management Opinion The Pandemic Could Have Unlocked Remote Schooling. It Hasn't
Despite the hopes of education leaders, online learning options aren't meeting families' needs, writes researcher Robin J. Lake.
Robin J. Lake
5 min read
Conceptual Illustration of locks in cyberspace
iStock/Getty
School & District Management Staff Shortages Affect Students, Too. Here's Where Schools Are Shutting Down
A few months into the third academic year in a row disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, at least several dozen school buildings in numerous states have had to shut down due to inadequate staffing.
1 min read
A Brownsville Independent School District bus acts as a WI-FI hotspot for students needing to connect online for distance learning on the first day of class Tuesday, Aug. 25, 2020, in the parking lot of the Margaret M. Clark Aquatic Center in Brownsville, Texas. The bus is one of 20 hotspots throughout the city to help students have access to their online classes as part of the remote start to the school year due to COVID-19 pandemic.
Several shool buildings in different parts of the country have had to shut down in recent weeks due to a lack of available bus drivers.
Denise Cathey/The Brownsville Herald via AP