A new study from the Brookings Institution questioned the national push toward algebra-for-all by eighth grade, and found that the equation is a simple one: teaching algebra and other advanced math courses earlier than the ninth grade does not equal improved achievement.
Decades ago, baby boomers who took Algebra I usually took it in ninth grade or later. Today, the majority of U.S. students take something called Algebra I, but it's usually taught in eighth grade. Often, the class is a watered-down version of what Algebra I used to be — though the average eighth-grader is likely to say it's plenty tough.
The new study's findings, released in March, follow previous research suggesting that teaching algebra too soon hurts school outcomes for disadvantaged and late-blooming students, and correlates with a trend toward offering simplified algebra courses that slow the progress of high achievers.
Why so soon?
The push that shoved algebra to eighth grade in the U.S. began in the 1980s as part of an effort to increase international competitiveness by turning out more math whizzes and coincided with efforts to ensure that historically underserved middle school students weren't shut out of opportunities to attend college, according to the Brookings Institution's 2013 Brown Center Report on American Education.
"There is a general assumption that one of the ways to improve performance of American students in math is to have them take harder courses earlier," said Harvard policy professor Tom Loveless, author of the study.
That notion has been wedded to another idea — that it would improve opportunities for students who traditionally lack them if all students took algebra or another advanced math class such as geometry, Loveless said. Concern about improving opportunities and outcomes for Hispanic, black and economically disadvantaged students — who are statistically less likely to take those classes — added momentum to the algebra-for-all push.
More pressure grew from a desire to ensure that college-bound students take some calculus in high school. Teaching algebra in eighth grade allows students to complete a sequence of Algebra I, Algebra II, Geometry, Pre-Calc/Trigonometry and Calculus before high school graduation.
But, pushing kids into eighth-grade algebra hasn't helped. After exhaustive research, the Brookings study found that U.S. states that increased the percentage of students taking algebra in eighth grade were no more likely to see overall math achievement gains than other states.
"It's sounds attractive, but there is no apparent benefit from compelling all eighth-graders to take an advanced math class," Loveless said.
More harm than good
Other research suggests that teaching algebra to students who aren't ready to learn it brings unfortunate results.
A 2012 North Carolina study of 141,000 students found students taking algebra early scored significantly lower on end-of-course tests in Algebra I. And, they were less likely to pass standard follow-up courses.
That suggests that though strong math students can benefit from taking algebra in eighth grade, it is "decidedly harmful" for weaker math students to be rushed into advanced math concepts, Loveless said. Efforts to create equity for low-performing students from disadvantaged backgrounds by sweeping all students into advanced math courses can backfire, he added.
Loveless's study showed that the average math achievement level in the U.S. dropped as the number of students taking eighth-grade algebra classes has increased. His study didn't prove a causal relationship, but Loveless said the coincidence is worth further study.
As more students were shunted into eighth-grade algebra, the level of rigor in the courses dropped.
An analysis of 2005 school transcripts by the National Center on Education Statistics found that school course titles often overstate the content and rigor of algebra classes. It showed that only 34 percent of Algebra I classes in U.S. public schools can be defined as rigorous. Students who took those more rigorous courses got significantly higher scores on national tests than those in non-rigorous courses, the analysis showed.
Non-rigorous algebra classes mingle pure algebra with a heavy dose of basic elementary and junior high school math, the study found. Research suggests that a one-size-fits-all approach that steers all students toward weakened algebra courses stunts the growth of top students.
A 2009 study published by the Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis Journal showed that the math achievement of high-performing students in Chicago dropped after all students were required to take Algebra I. The necessity of adjusting courses toward the pace of "middle students" in the classes could be the reason, wrote Education Week blogger Erik Robelen, quoting study author Takako Nomi.
Algebra for all?
At least one prominent voice proclaims that making every kid learn algebra is folly. That voice belongs to Andrew Hacking, an emeritus professor of political science at New York's Queens College who writes books about education.
Hacking ignited a firestorm of controversy when he wrote a 2012 opinion piece for The New York Times that claimed requiring algebra in secondary schools contributes to the U.S. dropout crisis. Hacking wrote that required algebra classes present an "onerous stumbling block" to students of all ethnicities and income levels whose talents lie in other directions.
"Today at 11 o'clock, 4 million 14-year-olds will be required to study algebra. I regard that as senseless, mindless, sadistic and irresponsible," Hacking told the Deseret News.
Data that shows algebra is needed for many 21st-century jobs is misused and inflated, Hacking said.
Hacking cites figures from Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce that show occupations in science, technology, engineering and technology fields will grow to only 5 percent of all jobs by 2018. But the Georgetown report he cited also shows that workers with STEM skills — math included — are in high demand in many occupations outside of traditional STEM fields. People with STEM training earn more than others even if they don't work in a STEM occupation, the study said.
Loveless said U.S. students should learn algebra, just as they should study history, Shakespeare, and other knowledge fields that may or may not be useful in a future workplace. However, they don't need to learn algebra in eighth grade, he said.
"There is a four-year difference between taking algebra in eighth grade, or taking it before graduating from high school," Loveless said. "Virtually all American students can take a real algebra class by the time they graduate."
Concerns about increasing opportunities for underserved students are justified, Loveless said, but shouldn't justify wrong decisions about when algebra is taught.
"There are eighth-graders who are black, Hispanic or disadvantaged who should be taking advanced math in eighth grade and currently are not," he said. "But the idea of making everyone in the eighth grade take advanced math could backfire with a substantial number of students. It may not be the best way to go about increasing equity."
Loveless said results of the Brookings study suggest that state and district policies about teaching algebra to all students in eighth grade should be reconsidered. Decisions about whether a student should follow an accelerated math sequence or approach algebra at a more relaxed pace should be made at the school level — by teachers and principals who know the students needs and abilities, he said.