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.