Algebra for All in NYC

Mayor Bill de Blasio has announced a plan for every New York City middle school student to have access to algebra in 8th grade, and Chalkbeat is out with a great story discussing the challenges facing the initiative.

I work with many exceptional middle school students at BEAM, and for many, the lack of algebra in their middle schools is a tragedy.  No access to algebra closes doors; it’s as simple as that.  That’s because most people who pursue science degrees have taken calculus in high school, so you’ll be significantly behind if you don’t have that background.  But getting to calculus in high school requires taking algebra in 8th grade, unless you double up on math in some year!  There are ripple effects throughout high school and college; no 8th grade algebra makes it much harder to pursue a science major in college (which is why BEAM offers an online algebra course).

Yet simply providing some algebra classes opens a host of other issues.  First of all, algebra must be taught well, which will be hard for teachers who are not experienced teaching high school level math and who may not have the mathematical background to offer a high quality course.  Moreover, in many schools a teacher will have several classes of normal 8th grade math, and one algebra class—where would you put your prep time?  But the bigger danger is that kids who are not ready for algebra will be pushed into it.

The Chalkbeat article seems to treat this as a good thing, talking about “lower-performing students who could use the early exposure to a subject that trips up many students in high school.”  But if a student does not deeply understand earlier material, then accelerating is a mistake.  A study in California (also, paradoxically, in the same Chalkbeat article) points out that when California mandated algebra in 8th grade, those students got lower scores on 10th grade math two years later.  Really understanding algebra requires really understanding math.  Otherwise, you’re just memorizing formulas and not learning anything.

In fact, algebra is something of a debacle right now in New York.  On the old, easier, pre-Common Core Regents exam in New York City, roughly a third of students had to take the test multiple times to pass.  (And let me tell you, a pass does not demonstrate mastery.)  A quarter of students had to take it at least three times.  There were 66 students in New York City who took the test ten or more times, and half of them still didn’t pass!  Even for those students that did pass, did doing so on the tenth try really mean that they got something out of algebra class?

Fundamentally, there is a mismatch between what we are aiming for, namely that all students take algebra, and what we are achieving, which is that many students take the test repeatedly, focus on memorization, and don’t learn mathematics on a deep level.  Algebra should open doors.  There are no doors being opened by memorizing formulas, which (barring exceptional teachers) is all you can do when you don’t have the mathematical thought processes down going into the class.

It is good that algebra will be available to everyone.  It is a critical equity issue.  But for students to really take advantage of this opportunity, there is a lot more groundwork that must be put in place.

Author: danzaharopol

I am a math geek. I love doing math, learning math, and teaching math. Nothing excites me more than working with young people who are discovering new and amazing things. Professionally, I founded Bridge to Enter Advanced Mathematics (BEAM), a program that makes it possible for low-income and underserved students to become scientists, mathematicians, engineers, and programmers. That's where I spend most of my time geeking out about math these days. Prior to BEAM, I was a math graduate student (studying algebraic topology) and taught math in places all around the country. I also co-founded and served as the founding CEO of Learning Unlimited, an organization that mentors college students to create enrichment programs for local middle and high school students. In my non-existent free time, I love board games, great plays, frisbee, and reading.

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