'Algebra-for-All' Push Found to Yield Poor Results
Spurred by a succession of reports pointing to the importance of algebra as a gateway to college, educators and policymakers embraced “algebra for all” policies in the 1990s and began working to ensure that students take the subject by 9th grade or earlier.
A trickle of studies suggests that in practice, though, getting all students past the algebra hump has proved difficult and has failed, some of the time, to yield the kinds of payoffs educators seek.
“There’s no question that taking advanced courses boosts student achievement,” said Adam Gamoran, a professor of education policy studies and sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His 2000 study on algebra and tracking helped catalyze the interest in expanding access for all students to algebra courses.
“Where the area of disagreement comes,” Mr. Gamoran added, “is what should we do with students who performed poorly previously. In my judgment, the reason studies like mine show that students even with low levels of achievement do better in advanced classes is because the low-level classes are practically worthless.”
“And there’s no simple solution to this problem,” he added, “because we also know that when tracking is eliminated, students at high levels don’t gain as much as they do in high-level or [Advanced Placement] classes.”
Tom Loveless, the author of the report from the Washington-based Brookings Institution on “misplaced” math students in algebra, said the issue is even more complex.
“No one has figured out how to teach algebra to kids who are seven or eight years behind before they get to algebra, and teach it all in one year,” said Mr. Loveless, who favors interventions for struggling students at even earlier ages.
Nationwide, research findings may diverge because testing content varies—the TIMSS test has more algebra content than many state exams taken by 8th graders—and because course content varies from classroom to classroom.
“If you take what’s called algebra class, and you look at the actual distribution of allocated time, you find that many of those teachers spend a very large portion of that year on basic arithmetic,” said Mr. Schmidt, who is a distinguished university professor of education at Michigan State’s East Lansing campus. His research on U.S. classrooms has found, in fact, that nearly a third of students studying algebra are using arithmetic books in their classes.