Special Report
Mathematics

Algebra 1 Is a Turning Point. Here’s How to Help Incoming Students

A case study on getting kids ready for the gatekeeper math course
By Sarah Schwartz — June 22, 2021 9 min read
Illustration of a math student.
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Throughout the pandemic, data from testing has shown that students are struggling in math, making less progress than they might have in other years.

Teachers, too, have said that routines core to their instruction are much harder to do with virtual learners—like showing lots of visual representations, working out problems collaboratively, and having structured student discussions about math concepts. Even with screensharing and digital math tools, they say, it’s not quite possible to recreate the kind of classroom setting where students can work with manipulatives, groups can collaborate on whiteboards, and teachers can evaluate understanding in real time.

Students in all grades may require extra math support next year, but experts say this need is especially urgent in Algebra 1.

The course is often the first math class taken in high school, and it’s a gatekeeper to higher level mathematics that would prepare students for college study or careers in science, technology, engineering, or math. It’s also part of a student’s freshman grade point average, a signifier of whether they will graduate on time or not. Passing Algebra 1 is a graduation requirement in most states.

For this story, Education Week spoke with a dozen instructional experts, teachers, parents, and students about what students starting Algebra 1 next year need and how schools can support them. Representing their reflections and insights is “James,” a composite student about to enter high school and start Algebra 1.

Where things stand for James

When the pandemic hit, James was in the spring of his 7th grade year. Math wasn’t his favorite subject, but there were parts of it he found satisfying—like the moment when an understanding finally clicked into place after lots of examples and repetition. And he liked that math was a social subject, a class where it was not only allowed but encouraged for students to ask each other for help or bounce ideas off of one another.

He spent most of 8th grade in remote learning. Staring at the screen all day was hard. He would get headaches, and his phone was a constant distraction. Sometimes the Zoom feed would lag and he would miss parts of the math notes his teacher gave. The class moved a lot faster online than he was used to, with fewer opportunities to see his teacher work out example problems.

Asking questions was a drawn-out process. He’d have to stop the assignment, email the teacher, and wait for a response before he could keep going. If he were in a physical class, he might have turned to one of his peers for help. But it felt uncomfortable to do that online, when he didn’t know most of his classmates that well. Instead, he relied on math websites where he could plug in a problem or an equation and get the answer. He wasn’t failing, but he felt like he was barely keeping his head above water.

James’ school opened up for in-person in March 2021. When he came back to the building, his teacher quickly realized that he was struggling with a lot of skills she thought he had mastered—skills he would need to be successful in 9th grade, in Algebra 1. For example: At home, he’d relied on online tools to graph linear equations for him. He wasn’t sure how to do it by hand. And he struggled when asked to find all the positive and negative factor pairs for a number.

But he also had some deeper misunderstandings and unfinished learning around number sense. He was still a bit shaky with fractions and decimals: He might measure 7 inches on a ruler and note the value as 0.7 feet, rather than 7/12 of a foot. Presented with an equation like ½x + 3 = 7, he knew to subtract 3 from both sides. But then he wasn’t always sure how to “undo” the fraction.

In a normal 8th grade year, teachers said, they would take every opportunity to correct those misunderstandings in the moment and shore up students’ comfort—not only with fractions and decimals, but exponents, radicals, and negative integers, too. Wendy Habeeb, an 8th grade math teacher at Salida Middle School in California, said that she is constantly plotting on a number line on the white board, so that students can see connections between different expressions of numbers—that the square root of 64 is 8, which is the same as 16/2, for example.

“Having that ability to see relationships between numbers is what leads to success in Algebra 1,” said Phil Murray, a high school math teacher at Early College Opportunities High School in Santa Fe, N.M.

But online, it was harder for teachers to do that kind of constant reinforcement, and harder for students to internalize it. Now that James is back in the classroom, asked to explain his thinking, he draws a blank. He’s hesitant to volunteer answers because he’s afraid they’ll be wrong, and he doesn’t want to look like he’s farther behind than everyone else.

He’s nervous about starting Algebra 1. He’s already having a hard time keeping all the numbers and letters straight in his head, and he knows it’s only going to get more complicated from here. Next year also means the start of high school: a new group of students, new teachers, and the expectation, he worries, that he’ll be able to handle more advanced work on his own. He doesn’t feel ready.

What algebra teachers can do

Even in a regular year, teachers say, students come into Algebra with varying degrees of readiness. But this year, the range might be even greater, depending on what opportunities and resources they had during remote learning. James has trouble with fractions, while another student might be fine with fractions but struggle with exponents. For that reason, teachers and experts recommend, lessons should start with checks for understanding.

Teachers can figure out what skills and understandings are prerequisites for the new concept they’re starting to introduce, and then give students a couple of questions that would allow them to show their knowledge—or demonstrate that they have unfinished learning. Then, teachers can develop a task or mini-lesson to shore up that prerequisite skill, and make explicit its connection to the new learning. For example, teachers could review the basics of linear functions and how to plot them on a graph right before introducing slope-intercept form.

Experts recommend this kind of targeted, just-in-time support instead of remediation (having James repeat entire units from 8th grade math before moving on to Algebra 1 content). Remediation can be demotivating, said Amy Getz, the interim director of K–12 education strategy, policy, and services at the University of Texas at Austin’s Charles A. Dana Center. It also can push students who are struggling further behind, by limiting their access to grade-level content, she said.

James’ teacher can show multiple representations for new concepts, something that James always found helpful in the classroom—for example, drawing explicit connections between the way a linear function looks written as a mathematical expression, the way it looks as a graph, and real-world examples James might encounter. Teachers can also be explicit about the connections between word problems and the equations meant to solve them, teaching solution methods for different types of problems.

And the number line that Habeeb, the California middle school teacher, uses doesn’t have to stay in 8th grade: Algebra teachers can continue to plot radicals, exponents, and fractions if students are having a hard time conceptualizing their magnitude. For example: The idea that the square root of 16 is the same as 4 is the same as 2 squared can feel really abstract to students, said Sheng Lor, another 8th grade math teacher who works with Habeeb. But when she plots numbers like these at the same point on a number line, she said, “it was a like a switch in their head.”

Next comes practice, practice, practice, teachers say—opportunities to build fluency and confidence that students might not have had while learning remotely. Group practice, specifically, also allows teachers to listen to students’ thought processes. James’ teacher could listen in to his group conversation—asking guiding questions to explore his thinking, reinforcing his use of mathematical language, and addressing any misunderstandings in the moment.

But teachers will also have to get students comfortable having these kinds of group discussions again—important for students in all grades, but crucial for incoming 9th graders who may not know their classmates. Lor said that comfort level doesn’t just happen. She had to intentionally set aside time for students to develop relationships. This spring, she had some additional time with her math students due to state testing schedules. She chose to spend part of it just talking—having students share what they were doing over the weekends, for example.

It was a tough choice, deciding to chat instead of squeezing in one more math problem, because Lor knew that these students had already missed so much learning time. But it paid off: Her students were quicker to participate in turn-and-talks during the short time left in the school year.

High school math teachers—who might not usually spend as much time outlining classroom norms as their middle school counterparts—could spend more time on that this year, Getz said. “You model for the students how you can ask questions to try to understand someone’s reasoning, making it really clear that getting a wrong answer can sometimes be a really important step in the learning process.”

Insights for all teachers

Teachers, experts, parents, and students focused on two big takeaways. First, in math, all of this focus on relationship building and social-emotional learning isn’t an extra, teachers say. It’s integral to students’ academic success.

If students don’t feel comfortable saying they don’t understand, if they aren’t willing to tackle a challenging problem or share their ideas in a group, then they won’t be able to get the practice they need to achieve fluency, or ask the questions that can lead to deep conceptual understanding.

“All the time I would [have liked] to ask a question, but I was afraid of what was going to happen,” said Camrynn Smith, a rising 9th grader in Salida, Calif., about remote learning. She was nervous about calling attention to herself by typing into the chat box. And she thinks that it might take her a while to get back in the headspace where she feels comfortable asking questions again.

“Be patient,” Smith advised teachers. “Sometimes it’s really hard getting back into the groove of things.”

But getting back into the groove doesn’t have to mean easing off the challenge. Which leads to the second point: Give all students access to grade-level content. Helping students master challenging work with appropriate support keeps them on track, so that they’re prepared for higher level math and can succeed in the courses they need for graduation. And it can also build their confidence.

“I’m waiting for that ‘aha’ moment when she’s actually excited about the fact that she’s getting it,” said Christina Laster, a Palm Springs, Calif., parent of a rising 10th grader who was in Algebra 1 this past year. “I hope that it’s not as emotionally draining.”

Education Week spoke with 12 instructional experts, teachers, parents, and students for this story. They are, in alphabetical order: Stephanie Case, parent in Dansville, Mich.; Shelbi Cole, senior math specialist with Student Achievement Partners; Amy Getz, interim director of K–12 education strategy, policy, and services at the University of Texas at Austin’s Charles A. Dana Center; Wendy Habeeb, 8th grade math teacher at Salida Middle School in Salida, Calif.; Christina Laster, parent in Palm Springs, Calif.; Sheng Lor, 8th grade math teacher at Salida Middle School in Salida, Calif.; Bushra Makiya, middle school math teacher at The Leadership and Community Service Academy in New York City; Phil Murray, high school math teacher at Early College Opportunities High School in Santa Fe, N.M.; Camrynn Smith, 8th grader in Salida, Calif.; Holly Smith, parent in Salida, Calif.; Noah Starkey, 8th grader in Dansville, Mich.; Tara Warren, 7th and 8th grade math teacher at John Adams Middle School in Santa Monica, Calif.

Documents consulted include: Grades K-8 Focus Documents, Achieve the Core; Supporting Unfinished Learning in Math (May 8, 2021), Instruction Partners; Assisting Students Struggling with Mathematics: Intervention in the Elementary Grades, IES What Works Clearinghouse.

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