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Julia Steiny: Time to Change the Way We Teach Algebra

Thursday, August 16, 2012


Julia Steiny, GoLocalWorcester Education Contributor

Recently, in the New York Times opinion section, Professor Andrew Hacker asked, Is Algebra Necessary?

Surely he knew the educated, newspaper-reading public would revile him for such heresy. He states obvious truths, however. Algebra, and math requirements generally act as linebackers blocking “unqualified” kids from college altogether, and pushing large numbers of students who did manage to get in to drop out. In high school and college, students fail math courses far more often than other subjects. Hacker suggests colleges ease their requirements so mathematically-challenged "poets and philosophers" can thrive.

Naturally, the four zillion reader-comments passionately argue that algebra is necessary. For good reasons. Many howl that we'd be nuts to continue “dumbing down” the already-low bar that Americans set for most students.

But I applaud Hacker for sparking the conversation. He's right that math is a huge problem. It begs creative solutions.

So let's consider two complementary ideas. One has a decent track record, and the another employs technology in a new way.

In the 1980s researchers provided hard data proving that requiring Algebra II blocked most minority and low-income students from any hope of college. The College Board responded with a program called Equity 2000. The 6 pilot sites included Providence, Rhode Island, where I was then serving on the School Board.

The idea was to eliminate all the “business,” “consumer,” and other dummy-math courses. Put every 9th grader in Algebra I on the assumption that many could make it, given the chance. Every high-school student would have 4 years to get through Geometry and the much-loathed Alg II.

Providence decided to back up even further. All 6th graders went into Pre-Algebra, creating a year of preparation and even more time to plow through the traditional sequence. If nothing else, the kids would get real math.

While kind-hearted, perhaps, the teachers' hue and cry about the kids not being able to do the work only strengthened our resolve to raise expectations and boost kids’ opportunities. All math teachers 6-12 got College-Board training -- though surely not enough.

Still, two terrific unintended consequences emerged.

First, apart from the struggling students the program was designed to help, it was a godsend to the smarty-pantses. My kids were going through the system at the time, so I saw for myself the Brown, Providence, and Rhode Island College professors’ kids, among others, happily booking through the sequence, finishing Algebra I in 7th grade and Geometry in 8th. Those kids began 9th grade taking Algebra II. The local exam school, Classical High, had to beef up its math program to keep up with them.

Secondly, teachers started creating classes of slower students who, while not mastering the prescribed full year of a math subject, still got credit for what they did achieve. This allowed them to move forward, instead of flat-out repeating, which is such a drag -- and an invitation to drop out. Students in Providence's large schools could be sorted into differently-paced classes, with names like Pre-Algebra Part II. Kids got through the traditional sequence at varying rates, but as a result, many entered high school ready for Geometry.

And since their math courses were more rigorous, and at the same time more flexible, students failed courses at much less damaging rates.

Bottom line: In time, Equity 2000 got many more urban kids into college.

But in truth, it only picked up the kids for whom low expectations were the only real problem. It didn't much change how math is taught.

The NY Times’ readers insisted on algebra's importance to teaching logic, patterning, problem-solving, critical and analytical thinking -- in other words, reasoning. Absolutely true.

But the great majority of learners -- estimated at two-thirds -- need to wrestle with a real-world problem, and think it through, in order to grasp the abstract concepts embedded in the solutions. Math instruction mainly focuses on the algorithms, formulae and procedures to get to right answers instead of thinking through problems. Programs like Connected Math make some attempt to use real-world problems to teach algebraic abstractions.

But my now-grown sons, two of whom became software developers, have been arguing, since high school, that learning computer software programming is essentially learning algebra, only infinitely more fun, interesting, and useful.

And lo! At the Advanced Math and Science Academy (AMSA) in Marlborough, every student 6 through 11th grade takes computer science, in conjunction with math and the sciences, where programming skills come in very handy. AMSA had to invent the curriculum, because none was available.

Legions of students apply to this charter school, not because they adore math, but just to escape whatever school they would otherwise attend. This forced AMSA to figure out how to intrigue the "poets and philosophers," especially among the girls, who arrive full-on hating math and science. AMSA's been remarkably successful, enjoying off-the-map MCAS scores.

Equity 2000 was right-minded, but limited. It needed far more tricks, options, and new approaches to lure students into the puzzles of mathematical reasoning.

And really, in this day and age, shouldn't all kids start learning computer-science right about 6th grade anyway?

America’s K-12 educators can’t afford to keep lowering the bar. Raise it, instead, by all means. But get creative. It’s 2012. Can we really not see the value of computer science as a compelling teaching strategy?

Who are the slow learners here?

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears at EducationNews.org. She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data. For more detail, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at juliasteiny@gmail.com or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street, Providence, RI 02903. 


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Stephen Quist

I suppose if you are from RI and already have an abhorent educational system that any small progress made is to be hailed as the next major breakthrough in education.
What works in RI is far inferior than the advances already made here in Massachusetts.....RI as usual is just playng catch-up to Massachusetts..........keep trying little state keep trying......

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