When do students typically take a first course in algebra?
The issue is important, explained Michael Steele, an associate professor of education at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, because Algebra 1 is a foundation for other key STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects. Educators and policymakers have argued that access to beginning algebra can be an indicator of future college success, and that denying students of color timely access to these courses is a civil rights issue.
Steele and colleagues at other universities conducted a national survey of school districts to find out when students are taking Algebra 1.
The National Science Foundation-funded study looked at such issues as: when algebra was introduced; how universal it was; and what curriculum was followed. The Consortium for Policy Research in Education published the study this summer.
A key finding of the study, said Steele, was getting a much clearer picture of what districts are actually doing.
“There has been a lot of rhetoric and some policy analyses over the past five to 10 years that have suggested this massive push toward enrolling more and more students in 8th grade Algebra 1,” said Steele. “It was actually a state policy in California and Minnesota for quite a while, but the evidence we find in our research does not suggest a strong policy push toward mandating that every student take 8th grade algebra.” While about 25 percent of students take the course in 8th grade, it is still more common for students to take it in 9th grade, according to the research findings.
In fact, the researchers found in an in-depth case study of 12 districts they did as part of the research, three districts that had moved to starting algebra at 8th grade had discontinued that practice.
His research team felt this was a sensible approach, said Steele. “Rushing students through more mathematics has been shown to be detrimental to students, especially when they start college. You’ve only got about 22 percent of students who start college in a STEM major who are continuing on to get a degree.”
Taking a slower and deeper approach to mathematics, particularly at the middle school level, has merit, he added. Students need opportunities to deepen their understanding rather than rushing through courses and “checking off boxes to make sure they get to Calculus 1 or 2 by the end of high school.”
Another key finding of the study was that – even with the push toward Common Core – most decisions about mathematics policies and practices are still made at the district level. “Practice is still driven by local policy.”
Most of the decisions about the rigor of the curriculum, course organization and who gets access to mathematics and when are still made at the district level, he said. And, in most of the districts surveyed, policies on mathematics teaching were more than five years old, he added, though some changes and tweaks may be happening at the school level.
Another issue the study looked at was whether historically marginalized populations were being restricted in access to Algebra 1, considered a foundation course for future STEM learning. “What we see in the data is that there has been progress along those fronts,” said Steele. Where students could graduate from high school 25 years ago without ever taking an algebra course, that not the case anymore, he added. “We’re continuing to open access to that course to all of our students, regardless of demographics.”
While more students are able to enroll in algebra now, that doesn’t always guarantee success. “One of the things I worry about is some of the terror that’s struck into the hearts of students when they think about algebra. We need to prepare students to be more successful.”
Keys to supporting students are better professional development for teachers and more “just in time” interventions for students who are struggling. The researchers’ survey showed the average time teachers spent in professional development for mathematics was less than two full days a year. And, many districts dealt with struggling students by having them repeat the course or take it again in summer school.
“We need to support high schools and middle schools in finding interventions because repeating the course just takes time away from other mathematics courses they could be taking.”
Another interesting finding of Steele’s research was that many district administrators relied on old-fashioned thinking about “developmental readiness,” in deciding when to start Algebra 1. “There’s this pervasive sense that kids aren’t ready for abstract thinking until some point in their early teens. Everything we know tells us that’s not true. Students can build from concrete to abstract thinking in stages, starting in earlier grades.”
Mathematics educators have to continue to challenge that way of thinking that views algebra as formulas, symbols and “x’s” and ‘y’s.” Algebra is actually a foundation for finding and quantifying patterns, said Steele. “It’s the kind of thinking that people use every day, but they don’t talk about it in that sort of way.”
Steele and the team are planning to publish additional research based on the case studies they did following the survey.
Co-authors of the paper and members of the research project team with Steele were: Janine Remillard, Pennsylvania State University; John Y. Baker, 21st Century Partnership for STEM Education; Lindsay M. Keazer, Central Connecticut State University; and Beth Herbel-Eisenmann, Michigan State University.
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