NY Times: The Battle Over Algebra (and Equity)

AP Photo/LM Otero, File

The article published today by the NY Times is titled "The Algebra Problem: How Middle School Math Became a National Flashpoint." So what is the Algebra problem exactly? If you dive in to that question you quickly discover that the problem isn't algebra at all. Nothing is wrong with Algebra it remains a class that every public school student is expected to learn. Put another way, Algebra is a constant in this equation.  


So what's the problem then? The problem isn't algebra, it's equity. That's why educators on both coasts have been messing around with Algebra classes over the past several years.

Students have been required for decades to learn to solve for the variable x, and to find the slope of a line. Most complete the course in their first year of high school. But top-achievers are sometimes allowed to enroll earlier, typically in eighth grade.

The dual pathways inspire some of the most fiery debates over equity and academic opportunity in American education.

Do bias and inequality keep Black and Latino children off the fast track? Should middle schools eliminate algebra to level the playing field? What if standout pupils lose the chance to challenge themselves?

All of those questions raised in that last paragraph deserve to be answered and the good news is they have been. Various schemes to create more equity have been tried and none of them have worked as planned. That said, the one adopted by San Francisco was clearly the worst.

New York City’s previous mayor, Bill de Blasio, adopted a goal embraced by many districts elsewhere. Every middle school would offer algebra, and principals could opt to enroll all of their eighth graders in the class. San Francisco took an opposite approach: If some children could not reach algebra by middle school, no one would be allowed to take it.

The central mission in both cities was to help disadvantaged students. But solving the algebra dilemma can be more complex than solving the quadratic formula.


Again, calling this the "algebra dilemma" is a kind of intentional confusion of the issue. The issue here isn't math, it's equity. Teachers are trying to solve the equity dilemma by messing around with student's access to algebra.

Many school districts have traditionally responded to divergent achievement levels by simply separating children into distinct pathways, placing some in general math classes while offering others algebra as an accelerated option. Such sorting, known as tracking, appeals to parents who want their children to reach advanced math as quickly as possible.

But tracking has cast an uncomfortable spotlight on inequality. Around a quarter of all students in the United States take algebra in middle school. But only about 12 percent of Black and Latino eighth graders do, compared with roughly 24 percent of white pupils, a federal report found.

Simply put, Asian and white kids are excelling and Black and Hispanic kids are struggling. San Francisco's solution was to hold the advanced kids back. But this solution to the equity problem created another problem. Kids taking algebra in 9th grade couldn't get to calculus by 12th grade and that put them at a disadvantage when applying to colleges for STEM fields, i.e. science and engineering. 

Some students resorted to taking two years of math at once in 9th or 10th grade so they could still get to calculus. Others took a year of algebra in a compressed summer school format between 8th and 9th grade. Either way, the burden was placed on the advanced learners (and their parents) to solve the problem on their own.


The kicker is that after years of this nonsense, evidence showed the plan didn't work at all. Despite burdening the advanced kids, the racial achievement gap in San Francisco didn't close. The city's progressive solution was a complete failure and eventually the city admitted it and reversed course. Starting this coming fall, advanced students will be allowed to take algebra in 8th grade again.

New York City had a different solution for the equity dilemma. Former Mayor Bill de Blasio planned to make algebra available to all students in 8th grade (rather than just some advanced learners). It wasn't required but it was meant to be an option for 100% of students eventually, which sound very equitable. But it didn't close the achievement gap.

Since then, the number of middle schools that offer algebra has risen to about 80 percent from 60 percent. But white and Asian American students still pass state algebra tests at higher rates than their peers.

If you look at the math test scores in New York, you find that there is a wide achievement gap already present in grade 3. Scores are broken into four levels and those in levels 3 and 4 are considered proficient while those in levels 1 and 2 are not proficient. In grade 3, 76% of Asian students, 60% of White students, 44% of Black students and 42% of Hispanic students are proficient. The numbers change over the years but relatively speaking the gap is still pretty similar by grade 8: 68% of Asian students, 48% of White students, 31% of Black students and 32% of Hispanic students are proficient. 


In other words, whatever is causing the achievement gap is happening before 3rd grade and 6 years of school (3rd to 8th grade) only makes a small dent in that pattern. 

As for what might fix it, I don't know. I do notice that there is a similar and very obvious achievement gap (28 points in 3rd grade) between those who are categorized as economically disadvantaged and those not economically disadvantaged. It's about the same gap found between those in foster care and those not in foster care. Both things suggest to me that poverty and family dysfunction has a lot to do with the achievement gap. Those problems aren't evenly divided by race. Whatever the case, messing with access to algebra was never going to fix this.

Finally, some good comments on this story.

"San Francisco took an opposite approach: If some children could not reach algebra by middle school, no one would be allowed take it."  In the name of equity, can we apply this more broadly?  If all kids can't dunk, no basketball team.

Another one.

This insanity is happening up in Oregon schools too.   We are purposely slowing down advanced students in the name of "equity".   

I can't think of a more backwards approach to education.

From a reader in San Jose:

I live in the Bay Area. My public district eliminated the opportunity to take Algebra 1 in middle school - unless families PAID for an after school math club and PAID for an online assessment at the end of 7th grade. And even then, limited opportunities because they didn’t have the funding to hire enough teachers to teach the students that did successfully finish the program. I became so frustrated I pulled my children out of public and into private schools. To where they are now given opportunities to even take Geometry in 8th grade, should they show the aptitude. 

Now my money, my time and my support is nearly solely focused on their private schools.  Talk about a failed ridiculous policy intended to narrow the achievement gap - it’s only widened it!!


Stop sacrificing excellence on the altar of equity.

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John Stossel 1:00 PM | June 15, 2024