The Washington Post

Middle schools shun challenges, such as teaching your children algebra

- Jay Mathews

Why do eighthgrad­ers make us nervous? They can be difficult. Dealing with puberty is no fun for them or us. But our discomfort with that age group shouldn’t get in the way of teaching them something important: algebra.

A report by the U.S. Education Department in 2018 found that only 24 percent of eighth-graders were enrolled in Algebra 1. Most have to wait until ninth grade, even though starting algebra earlier, the report said, would allow more time in high school “to take the more advanced courses that are often prerequisi­tes for postsecond­ary STEM majors.”

Many public school districts appear to doubt that 13-year-olds with raging hormones can handle the study of mathematic­al symbols and their use in formulas. A 2013 report by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area found that many students were forced to retake Algebra 1 in ninth grade despite having passed the course in eighth grade. “Minority students are being disparatel­y impacted by these improper placements,” the report said.

The report did not give a reason for students being made to take algebra again but said “failure to master the subject area was not the reason.” It said more than 60 percent of those forced to repeat the course had already scored proficient or advanced on the state algebra exam.

A 2006 study of 2,634 students in a large southeaste­rn school district by researcher Frances R. Spielhagen found that those who took Algebra 1 in eighth grade did as well as similar students who took it in ninth grade. Those taking the course in eighth grade “stayed in the mathematic­s pipeline longer and attended college at greater rates” than similar students who took it in ninth grade, Spielhagen said.

Our education system tends to discount what’s happening in middle school. We try to keep those kids happy but fear pushing them too hard. We comfort them, and ourselves, by saying colleges don’t care about their courses and grades until they are in high school.

That laid-back attitude can cause trouble. Middle school parents who think their children are ready for Algebra 1 encounter confusion, resistance and an assumption by some teachers that parents don’t understand the subtle educationa­l issues involved.

I know a math teacher whose daughter was in a large suburban district that he thought was keeping many middle-schoolers out of Algebra 1 because low scores on a required state algebra exam might make the school look bad. His daughter had a 96 average in seventh-grade math, but she was never good at standardiz­ed tests. The school wanted to place her not in algebra but in pre-algebra in eighth grade.

“I told the school that the recommenda­tion was ridiculous,” the father told me. “They responded that the teacher knew my daughter better and I would have to fill out a form overriding the recommenda­tion. They also said if my daughter didn’t do well in Algebra 1, it would basically be my fault.”

He filled out the form. His daughter got a 99 average in Algebra 1 and passed the state test. “I knew what my daughter was capable of,” he said. “But think about some parents who are new to the country or who never went to college or who took Algebra 1 in ninth grade like so many did 20 or 30 years ago. Would they have gone against the recommenda­tion of the seventh-grade teacher and school?”

A math reform movement is underway that includes new course names and less tracking of students into accelerate­d courses like Algebra 1 in eighth grade. There is resistance to the reforms from experts who support accelerati­on and parents who find the proposed changes hard to understand and lacking in control group research. Even reform advocate Jo Boaler, a math education professor at Stanford, told me “all students should be given the opportunit­y to take algebra in eighth grade, if that is the course the district offers.”

Many schools have daunting rules for who does and does not get into accelerate­d middle school math. One small, affluent California school district I know well doesn’t even use the term “Algebra 1” in its list of accelerati­on options, although it does teach that subject in those classes.

Here are its rules for eighthgrad­ers posted online: “To be considered for Accelerate­d Math, students MUST meet 3 out of the 4 criteria below. … 1. Math Placement Test score of 88% or above for part 1 (7th grade content) and 80% or higher for part 2 (8th grade content). 2. CAASPP [California Assessment of Student Performanc­e and Progress] score in UPPER HALF of STANDARD EXCEEDED Range. 3. Average of 4.00 in Math for the 1st, 2nd and 3rd Quarter Report Card. 4. Teacher Recommenda­tion score of at least 13 out of 15.”

Many public charter middle schools focusing on disadvanta­ged students train teachers to prepare students for Algebra 1 and make sure most or all of them take the course by eighth grade. Many regular public middle schools are more comfortabl­e relying on standardiz­ed test score hurdles to keep allegedly unready students out of Algebra 1 rather than work to prepare them for the challenge.

That emphasis on sorting rather than teaching is one of the great weaknesses of American education. The low eighth-grade Algebra 1 participat­ion rate indicates not much is being done about it. Recovering from the learning losses of the pandemic will be hard, but opening up algebra to more middle-schoolers can’t hurt.

One of the most experience­d teachers in this subject is Mike Feinberg, co-founder of what is now the nation’s largest charter school network, KIPP. At its beginning in the 1990s, its middle schools, serving mostly impoverish­ed students, tried to include as many students as possible in Algebra 1 by eighth grade.

“Enrolling eighth-graders into algebra from a high-expectatio­ns standpoint and knowing there is the safety net of ninth-grade algebra is a good plan,” Feinberg said, as long as the eighth-grade course is not what he called “a soul-crushing experience” in which students lose confidence and love for math. “Another way to do this,” he said, “is to slow-roll algebra into a two-year course where the material is covered more completely and slowly to help ensure the kids are mastering it.”

That’s not happening in many places. Given this era’s emphasis on getting more students into the STEM profession­s (science, technology, engineerin­g and math), it’s a good time to show some confidence in middlescho­olers and see what they can do when well taught.

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