Education Week - June 13, 2018 - 11
Can Promising Early Results Sustain Algebra Equity Push?
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about rigor and whether their children would be able to take calculus
by senior year, barraged everyone
from the district superintendent's
office to City Hall with complaints
But the district has held firm, and
now, preliminary evidence suggests
that San Francisco's gamble may
be paying dividends for black and
Latino students, without hurting
students who otherwise would have
taken algebra earlier.
But the question still remains: Is
that going to be enough to keep the
policy in place for years to come?
Context for a Debate
The 56,000-student district's theory of action is clear: Math is by far
the most heavily tracked course in
the American secondary education
system, and the ramifications for
students of color are life-altering.
Federal data show that white and
Asian students disproportionately
take Algebra 1-long seen as a critical gateway to advanced math-
before high school, while AfricanAmerican and Latino students are
overrepresented among those taking
it for the first time in grade 9. Many
of them take it as late as their junior or senior year.
Like so many other elements of
K-12 education, those disparities
partly reflect parents' relative socioeconomic capital.
"Many of these parents are thinking, 'How can I get my kids into the
few spots in Stanford and Harvard?'"
said James Ryan, who was until last
month the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics executive
director for the district. "They think
the earlier students distinguish
themselves from their peers, the better off they'll be, rather than seeing
math as a platform for equity."
As if the politics of de-tracking
math weren't bad enough, a minority of mathematicians worry that it
will hold back the most math-minded
students-ultimately harming America's supply of well-trained graduates.
Calculus is virtually an entrance requirement at top-tier colleges, they
point out, and that usually means
taking Algebra 1 in 8th grade.
The tug of war over these competing beliefs has led California to
experiment with just about every
possible algebra permutation over
a decade. In 2008, the state all but
required every 8th grader to take
algebra. It reversed course in 2010
after adopting the Common Core
Research paints a far more nuanced picture than either side in
such debates typically acknowledge.
For the average student, researchers say, early exposure to a challenging class like algebra probably does
But in a 2015 study, the University of North Carolina's Thurston
Domina and colleagues tracked how
California's uneven 8th grade algebra-for-all rollout played out across
districts. In a surprise finding, they
discovered that higher enrollments
in early algebra were linked to a decline in students' scores on a state
"I think the failure of 8th grade
algebra was one of just not preparing teachers and school leaders to
understand the policy and to implement it well," said Domina, an associate professor of education policy
and sociology. "The whole idea was
to have heterogeneous, rigorous
classes, and schools didn't have the
capacity to pull that off."
REPEAT RATES FOR ALGEBRA 1
Fewer students of all racial and ethnic groups have had to repeat Algebra 1 in San Francisco since the district
moved accelerated math classes out of middle schools and began detracking Algebra 1 classes in high school.
A New Approach
With that history in mind, San
Francisco's commitment to de-tracking math tries to navigate between
two rocky shoals: politics and implementation.
To address the first, the district
permits students to accelerate
after completing Algebra 1 in 9th
grade-most notably through a
compressed class combining Algebra 2 and precalculus. That way,
students can still take advanced
math as upperclassmen.
"All of the acceleration paths are
family and student choices, not based
on test scores or teacher preference,"
Ryan said. "You make the choice
when you're 16, when you actually
know a bit more about what kind of
student you are."
It can still be difficult to explain
the theory of action behind the new
course sequence to parents, especially
when they carry a preconception of
which students should be grouped
together in a math class, said Hoss
Koch, an assistant principal at the
district's Denman Middle School.
In particular, Koch said, he tries
to explain to parents that 8th grade
math under the common core contains a significant amount of algebraic content, such as linear functions, that wasn't in earlier 8th
grade math iterations. Algebra isn't
so much gone from 8th grade as it is
now taught much more deeply over
two school years.
As for implementation, San Francisco administrators have shaped
day-to-day teaching and curriculum to support the district's focus
on equity. Heavily based on work
by Jo Boaler, a Stanford University
professor of math education, the curriculum emphasizes having groups
of students work through a series of
ambitious math tasks.
Traditional math teaching, the
thinking goes, tends to reinforce
rather than break down inequities.
"If you have a procedural textbook, not only is there nothing to collaborate about, the 'smart kid' in the
group is always the one who gets the
computation right," said Lizzy Hull
Barnes, the mathematics supervisor
for the San Francisco district. But
when students wrestle over problems together, they can use different
methods, compare approaches, and
figure out why some work and others don't, making all of them active
participants in the learning, she said.
The focus on instruction, rather
than just courses, is laudable-and
too often absent from discussions on
de-tracking, said Patrick Callahan,
a math consultant who has advised
Class of 2018
Class of 2019
SOURCE: San Francisco Unified School District
California school systems, including
San Francisco's, on their math programs. "I talk to districts about this,
and they think it's like switching
textbooks. That's really missing the
point," he said.
If you asked how San Francisco's
math-teaching philosophy might
ideally look in practice, it would
probably resemble geometry teacher
David Russitano's classroom. On a
cloudy morning in May, his students
at Burton High School are working
on a probability and statistics task.
They pull playing cards, one by one,
out of a suit, using math to bet on
whether a higher or lower card will
As the lesson progresses, the questions get tougher: How do the odds
change if three cards are randomly
taken out of the suit? Why would you
want to bet in some situations and
In groups, students approach the
problem in different ways: One girl
crosses out each card on a sheet of
paper as it appears; others are more
easily able to make the leap to a fraction notation.
Russitano breaks in from time to
time to highlight some of the strategies-a technique math leaders here
call "assigning competence"-and
correct common errors, always while
posing lots of questions for students.
Productive chatter is an expectation,
not a rare occurrence in his classroom.
"Don't be this quiet! Talk about it,"
Russitano tells his students, during a
lull in the middle of the lesson. "Don't
Most teachers praise the social-justice impetus behind the math plan.
But they also say that heterogeneous
classes pose unique problems.
Students bring vast achievement
differences to class, a situation that's
not helped by ambitious parents who,
now, shell out thousands of dollars for
students to take non-district algebra
classes over the summer in the hopes
of getting their children into geometry early.
"We have kids who have seen
some of the math before. Their
knowledge may not be deep, it may
be procedural, but they come in
thinking, 'I know this already.' You
have to authentically challenge
them, too," said Daniel Yamamoto,
an algebra teacher and the math-department chairman at Burton High.
"And there are other kids who say
[in response], 'I have nothing I can
add to this discussion.' "
It's something that occasionally
throws a wrench into the group tasks,
as visits to several classrooms demonstrate. Sometimes the groups fall
into "tutorial mode," with one student
doing most of the cognitive work on
her own and then conveying her answers to the others.
Getting the balance right between
equity and responding to real variation in student ability makes the
work quite difficult for teachers,
math experts say.
"Tracking is an evil. But fear of
tracking is a problem, because you
do have to talk about differences in
students' backgrounds," said Phil
Daro, a common-core-math writer
who helped San Francisco design the
new course sequence.
Does It Work?
This year, San Francisco got something of an ace in its back pocket to
show skeptics of the plan: Data show
better math outcomes for students
who took the de-tracked courses compared with the cohort before them.
The number of students repeating
algebra has fallen among all ethnic
and racial groups, and fewer are receiving D's and F's in Algebra 1. About
a third more students are ready for
calculus, and that pool is more diverse than it's ever been.
While it's not proof-positive that
the new course sequence has caused
the better outcomes, leaders say, it's
a hopeful sign.
Nevertheless, the new math sequence remains high on parents'
radar. Most recently, "protecting
algebra" appeared on the campaign
platform of London Breed, a candidate in the city's June 5 mayoral
election. Breed said she'd create
enrichment programs "so motivated
students whose passion is not currently met by the curriculum sequencing can thrive." (She was narrowly in second place at the time of
this writing, with the outcome not yet
Daro, the education consultant,
said he continues to worry that San
Francisco leaders' decision four years
ago not to offer a limited amount of
Algebra 1 in 8th grade might someday backfire. "I thought politically it
was a mistake," he said. "It may still
turn out to be one."
District leaders, for their part, are
focused on more immediate concerns. Asked what challenges remain, Barnes points to the progress
of black students as an area in which
the city needs to double down. Those
students have gained in math and
science credits, alongside their peers,
but those gains aren't yet showing up
on state test scores or in enrollments
in AP Calculus.
Her colleague Angela Torres, a
math-content specialist, cites the difficulty in ensuring that all teachers
feel confident in the new curriculum
and teaching methods.
"This work is hard, and the challenge is to continue to come at it,"
she said. "You can't just put kids in
groups and hope for the best."
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