By Dr. Charles Powell (see other posts by Chuck)
Algebra in the 8th grade is a hot topic currently. But Algebra I in the 8th grade isn’t a new topic. Algebra was taught in the 8th grade when I was in middle school more than 30 years ago. So why all the sudden fuss; what has changed? It turns out, plenty, and not as media pundits would have you believe.
Yes, state policy is pressuring middle schools to send more students to high school with Algebra I under their belts. But, no, today’s 8th graders are not doing worse than 8th graders from previous years, nor are they receiving a free pass along the way. In fact, today’s 8th graders are performing better in mathematics than their counterparts in any of the last 30 years, and more 8th graders are completing Algebra I than ever before. (Institute for Education Sciences, 8th-Grade Algebra: Findings From the 8th-Grade Round of the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, Kindergarten Class of 1998-1999, National Center for Education Statistics, U.S. Department of Education, 2010, p.11 and Institute for Education Sciences, NAEP 2008 Trends in Academic Progress, National Center for Education Statistics, U.S. Department of Education, 2009, p.29.)
Some critics, such as the Brown Center, make valid points about the difficulties caused by placing all 8th graders in Algebra I without sufficient supports. But that “without sufficient supports” matters and is the meat of the solution, if you will (hint: never write a blog post when you’re hungry!).
I take Algebra I policy and practice rather personally. It was the subject of my doctoral dissertation more than 15 years ago. I identified the list of high schools in Texas that had at least half of their kids eligible for free lunch, and I was lucky enough to visit the 10 schools with the highest average score on the then-new Texas Algebra I End of Course Exam. Without making you slog through all 200 pages, suffice it to say that every school had a school leader who had the teachers’ backs. And, every school had an agreement among administration and faculty that students completing Algebra I was a given, not an option to strive for. Remember, this was almost 20 years ago, when Algebra I was not even a high school graduation requirement in most states.
Today, the math courses a student takes in high school bear on not only their high school transcript but their eventual success in college, so there is ample reason why getting kids successfully through Algebra I in 8th grade and subsequently through Advanced Placement®/ International Baccalaureate® math course(s) in high school matters:
Of all pre-college curricula, the highest level of mathematics one studies in secondary school has the strongest continuing influence on bachelor's degree completion. (Adelman, 1999)
And, in particular:
Advanced Placement course taking is more strongly correlated with bachelor’s degree completion than it is with college access.
Now reread those two quotes again. What they are saying is that intensity of courses taken in high school matters. In fact, students completing a course at the Advanced Placement (and assuming equally the International Baccalaureate) level correlates with double the chances of COMPLETING college, not just getting accepted.
Even more telling for this post, the level specifically of the highest mathematics course completed in high school has the strongest influence on completing a bachelor’s degree. By “continuing influence,” Dr. Adelman is referring to his process of weeding out the factors that lead to a bachelor’s degree. The story he tells in his research is one of incredible focus and specificity. He gives factors such as a student’s race every opportunity to show up as significant in his equations. It does not. He also gives factors such as the highest math course completed in high school every opportunity to fall out of significance. Instead it remains in the story as significant longer than any other factor.
So what to do with our kids in middle school, some who enter middle school on track for Algebra I in two or three years along with other kids who are not? As with every other “controversy” in education, the answer lies between the two extremes – in this case between universal enrollment in Algebra I without additional support versus restriction from Algebra I for some students. For those of you reading this blog, that additional support includes AVID. As the researcher known for her work on gifted and talented education, Jeanie Oakes, put it 15 years ago:
The notion or typical expectation is that these kids are so many years behind others in college-prep that they can’t catch up. What AVID says is that maybe they’re only 50 minutes a day behind. (AVID Access Interview, 1997)
The goal should be to ensure that as many students as possible complete Algebra I at a level of mastery that they are prepared for geometry as freshmen. The best place to start is with schools that are having success doing exactly this. (Click here to read the “Jackson Middle School Algebra” success story on pages 10-11.) Then revise the school’s improvement plan to include or strengthen the goal toward algebra for all. Accomplishing this goal is possible, but it takes more than merely saying so.