Friday, August 10, 2012

Does algebra for everybody help anybody?

Over the past two decades or so, there's been a push to raise standards in schools with the goal of increasing the number of kids who graduate college and career ready. There are certainly logical reasons to do this. In California, for instance, entrance to the state universities requires a certain set of courses. Yet many students, over the years, have graduated from high school without having taken those courses. If students later want to try college, they need to take remedial classes to do so.

One form this push for higher standards has taken is "algebra for all" requirements. The idea is that all 9th graders will take algebra, so they have the background for college prep math and science in later grades. But some studies have found that requiring students to take algebra doesn't actually result in higher college enrollment rates. And now a new study finds that algebra-for-all has a downside: less progress for higher achievers.

You can read the Education Week story on the study, published in Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, here.

In essence, what happened is that schools eliminated remedial courses. By putting lesser prepared students into the same 9th grade math classes as more advanced students, the schools created more mixed (heterogeneous) groups, skewed toward a lower level of preparation than before. Teachers naturally teach to the middle of the group. An experienced teacher who can see that half her class hasn't quite grasped the concept she introduced is going to spend more time on it, assign more homework on it, and so forth. But there is a limited amount of classroom time, and so the teacher doesn't delve into more advanced topics, or move as quickly as she would if she could see that 70% of the class had mastered the material. Students who could handle more didn't get more.

As the article notes, any talk of grouping students by readiness (some say ability, but I prefer readiness) causes controversy. It is certainly possible that one could create a mixed-readiness class that met every child's needs. But doing so is very, very hard to do in real life as opposed to in educational political theory. Worse results for high-achievers without corresponding gains for students who needed more help doesn't sound like a result anyone would aim for.


gasstationwithoutpumps said...

I prefer the term "placement by achievement".

nicoleandmaggie said...

Kalena Cortes and coauthors have an interesting working paper on some kind of ability grouping thing for algebra that the Chicago schools did that actually worked for the lower tail (although the Chicago schools thought it didn't work because, ironically, they didn't correctly analyze the program... something about basic math errors). I think they gave two class periods for algebra instead of just one for less ready students. I don't remember the details though.

Anonymous said...

My experience is that the gifted student can digest the algebra textbook on their own, knows the footnotes inside and out and could probably teach the rest of the class if they had to substitute for an absent teacher. Algebra is very easy for gifted students. It puzzles me when parents and teachers do not realize that fact. Please just let them read the textbook.

Jack said...

When my daughter was in first grade she told me she was bored learning the same thing everyday while the teacher repeated for the slower learners. She was placed in a pull out program one day a week with the other gifted students called Focus. She informed me, " I wish I could go to Focus everyday." This year she is still in Focus one day a week and she is in a math class with other gifted students and advanced math students every day.

I am opposed to " No Child Left Behind " and to " Race to the Top as teachers spend too much time teaching for the tests and not enough time on teaching what students need to know.

Common Sense is to put children with the similar ability in the same classes whether Alegebra, Science, History or English.

Anonymous said...

Jack's response seems logical. Does anyone know why this would be a problem? For some reason(s) unknown to us, in our town, talking about children's advanced learning ability is very unpopular. The feelings about giftedness run deep and wide. We try to just be ourselves regardless.

'Nother Barb said...

I am more concerned that in a school system that is consistently on the low end of achievement measures, a 9th-grade algebra requirement would not come with support for ALL students, and especially for low-achieving. (I live near Chicago, the district named in the article.) My school district expects, but does not mandate, algebra in 8th grade. my older son then went on to Advanced Accelerated Algebra in 9th grade, against my better judgment, and struggled mightily thereafter. I didn't realize that once he took AAA in grade 9, there was no escaping the track and going into a slower-paced/remedial class. Then, in 12th grade Calculus, at my insistence and with the fear of not getting into college looming, he went for extra help 3 times a week. (Earlier, his schedule and that of his teachers didn't meld for extra help.) His math grade rapidly climbed almost 30 points. Proper support makes all the difference.

My younger son, on the other hand, had Algebra as part of his gifted math classes, and will take Advanced Algebra and Trigonometry in 8th grade (at the high school, but only accelerated 8th graders in the class), and will have a math-teacher-proctored study hall at the middle school. So as a high-achieving student, he will automatically receive extra support. Something is wrong there.

Coincentally, the same teacher that rescued my struggling older son will now have my math-loving younger son.

'Nother Barb said...

Jack and Anonymous, I can see one problem area with grouping by ability: when my son was in first grade, he and 4 classmates took 4th grade math with the 4th grade teacher while her class was at math or art or somthing. Good thing, because my son couldn't read the textbook yet! The teacher made adjustments to accommodate.

This opportunity is not available as a rule in my school, it has everything to do with who's available when. Sadly, such inconsistency seems to be, um, consistent in gifted ed. You are right, Anonymous, about it being a taboo subject: the parents of the 5 1st graders were advised by the principal not to talk about it!