College & Workforce Readiness Opinion

Algebra For All Yields Failure for Many

By Anthony Cody — December 02, 2012 4 min read
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The San Francisco Chronicle shared news Friday from a new report from the Center for the Future of Teaching and Learning that raises questions about the wisdom of placing all students in Algebra in the 8th grade:

California students who fail algebra and repeat the course are pretty much doomed to fail again, a vicious cycle that wastes limited resources and precious learning time, according to a report released Friday.
Just over a third of students in the 24 school districts studied had to repeat Algebra I either in ninth or 10th grade, yet even after a second year of study, relatively few were proficient in the subject.
Of those who took the class in eighth grade and repeated it as freshmen, just 1 in 5 scored at a proficient level on standardized tests. And of those who repeated as sophomores, 9 percent were proficient.

In 2008, a report was released entitled “What Factors Predict High School Graduation in the Los Angeles Unified School District.” The authors found:

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.

So we have around a third of students who are failing Algebra, and not really recovering. Here is the Center for the Future of Teaching and Learning’s press release about their new report. The full report can be found here.

This echoes reports that came out in 2010 that likewise raised warning flags about the “Algebra For All” trend.

Back in 2008, when courts in the State of California temporarily held up the implementation of a new policy that mandated all 8th grade students be placed in Algebra classes, leaders at the Education Trust were forceful in their response.

Their press release quoted Russlynn Ali, then Executive Director of Ed Trust West (now Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights in the Department of Education):

In today's increasingly competitive and interconnected global economy, it is inexplicable, and quite simply trifling, that we are still debating whether or not to educate our children to the highest levels as early as possible.
There's been complaining, handwringing, and in-fighting, but not nearly enough effort to develop a thoughtful, realistic plan for success. Instead, critics have spent far too much time casting about for reasons why teachers will be unable to teach Algebra to 8th graders, and why all 8th graders - especially low income, Latino, and African American students - will be unable to learn what they're taught.

I am afraid I am among the handwringers in this case, and let me explain why.

My primary concern is about the capacity of our schools to meet students where they are and bring them up to success. While voters in California have recently approved additional funding for schools, our classrooms have been starved for years. Teacher turnover is high among math teachers, and class sizes have been growing steadily. One in four of our children lives in poverty now, and this has been shown to have real impact on academic performance.

The Education Trust has applied similar thinking to this issue that they brought to bear on No Child Left Behind - “raise the bar” and demand that students clear it. Then if they do not, we end up with more evidence that our schools and teachers have failed.

And before someone accuses me of having “low expectations,” allow me to state for the record that I do believe that most children CAN succeed in Algebra - even at the 8th grade, with the right combination of home and school supports and preparation. But we cannot blame students, teachers and schools for failure when they are starved of these supports.

I asked Dr. Ruth Cossey, professor of math education at Mills College in Oakland for her thoughts about this. She said:

Higher expectations is foundational to student achievement but so far from sufficient. Mandated standards that raise the bar with provision of minimal other supports may indeed increase achievement for a small number of students but the mandate alone will not help anyone. We don't know what sufficient support would be, but we are clear that declarations alone don't cut it.

Focusing on standards seems to me to be the easiest, cheapest sort of pseudo-reform
. Pound your chest about how competitive the world is, and how we must expect the very best from everyone - while ignoring the very real obstacles that many students and schools face. When we find that one third of our students are failing Algebra overall, we know that in the high poverty schools that number is much higher. And when a major sector seems to actually relish the chance to declare public schools to be failures, in order to take advantage of the opportunities this creates, we have to wonder about the motives at work, as well as the wisdom of the project.

I believe the Common Core assessments are going to have a similar - but much broader-- effect as mandating all 8th graders take Algebra. A recent presentation by an investment firm advising education sector investors exhorted them to “Help Close the Performance Gap! If Common Core has teeth, the ‘Performance Gap’ will get a lot bigger!”

Interestingly, even some conservatives are beginning to note this possibility, with the added twist that there will be brand NEW performance gaps affecting suburban schools as well! According the competitive logic of the “reformers,” we must raise the bar ever higher. And if a third of the students fail, then we can simply blame the lousy schools and replace them with virtual charters or whatever.

Here is what Rick Hess explains - and he has much closer connections with these folks than most of us do:

Every time I ask about these things, I get watery, vague reassurances. Meanwhile, when I ask how exactly the Common Core is going to change teaching and learning, I'm mostly told that it's going to finally shine a harsh light on the quality of suburban schools, shocking those families and voters into action. This will apparently entail three steps:
First, politicians will actually embrace the Common Core assessments and then will use them to set cut scores that suggest huge numbers of suburban schools are failing. Then, parents and community members who previously liked their schools are going to believe the assessment results rather than their own lying eyes. (In the case of NCLB, these same folks believed their eyes rather than the state tests, and questioned the validity of the latter--but the presumption is that things will be different this time.) Finally, newly convinced that their schools stink, parents and voters will embrace "reform." However, most of today's proffered remedies--including test-based teacher evaluation, efforts to move "effective" teachers to low-income schools, charter schooling, and school turnarounds--don't have a lot of fans in the suburbs or speak to the things that suburban parents are most concerned about.
And this brings us to the crux of the matter. After failing miserably to convince suburban and middle-class voters that reforms designed for dysfunctional urban systems and at-risk kids are good for their children and their schools, Common Core advocates now evince an eerie confidence that they can scare these voters into embracing the "reform" agenda. And this conviction has become the happy Kool-Aid that allows would-be reformers to ignore the fact that they're not actually offering to tackle the things (like access to exam-style schools, world language mastery, music and arts instruction, and so on) that suburban parents are passionate about.

Do you see the common thread here that I do? The act of “raising the bar” or “setting world class standards” does very little to support those of us working on the front lines with students - whether we are in inner cities or leafy suburbs. Although new resources were promised when NCLB was passed a decade ago, we know they never materialized - and in recent years federal dollars have been diverted into competitive programs like Race to the Top that further fetishize test scores. In California, Algebra for all 8th graders came along in 2008, but in the four years since we have seen school budgets in our state slashed by billions.

But the end game may not be about raising the bar, whatever that might mean. It may be, as Rick Hess suggests, some sort of psychological campaign to convince people that schools are failures, to “disrupt” the status quo and create openings for “reform” solutions like charter schools.

And to return back to our 8th grade Algebra students, a third of whom are being effectively washed out as a result of their failure, how should we respond?

The report from the Center for the Future of Teaching and Learning suggests:

When students take algebra 1 (that is, in which grade) is less important than whether students are ready to take it.
The decision about when a student should take algebra 1 (e.g., grade 8? grade 9?) should be based on a careful review of the student's record to date in mastering pre- algebraic concepts, measured in several ways, including prior-year CST scores, teacher recommendations, results from district-administered benchmark assessments, and consultation with parents and counselors.
Furthermore, Having students repeat algebra 1 is generally not an effective strategy for supporting students who struggle in their first attempt at algebra.

The report also suggests that we need to do much more to prepare students for Algebra, starting in elementary school.

If we follow the pattern of NCLB, we will declare these unsuccessful students, their schools and teachers to be failures once again. But if we can LEARN from failure, we will back up and look at how we can restructure math instruction in middle school and earlier so that these students can truly achieve at high levels. We will look at smaller class sizes, earlier interventions, and programs that address the health, safety and security of our children. We will look at how to retain well-prepared teachers of math, and strengthen professional development so that we are all learning together. We will not expect new standards, even the Common Core, to do this heavy lifting for us. It won’t be easy or cheap, but that is what REAL reform looks like.

You know what I think. What do YOU think?

Continue the dialogue with me on Twitter at @AnthonyCody

The opinions expressed in Living in Dialogue are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.