Saturday, February 2, 2008

Biting the algebra bullet

Biting the bullet eventually pays off. California completely overhauled the state math standards making algebra mandatory as of 2004. Critics have been quick to point to this move as a big mistake citing the high percentage of students who score below proficient on the golden state's algebra exam.

The bottom line, however, is that there has been a 53% increase in the number of eighth-graders scoring "proficient" or "advanced" in algebra I between 2003 and 2007 according to research by EdSource. Nearly 239,000 eighth graders took algebra I in 2007 compared to 151, 700 in 2003. During the same period, the number of ninth graders taking algebra I increased 45% by 271,000 students.

"The vast majority of California school districts did not include (algebra) as a graduation requirement until compelled to do so by the state," the report says. "Today, presumably every California student who receives a diploma from a public high school has passed algebra I."

The EdSource report indicates that the top ten jobs in California will require knowledge of math and science. Requiring rigorous math and science courses for graduation gives students the tools they need to succeed in high demand, high tech jobs.

Furthermore, it is clear that algebra is a gatekeeper course required for success in college. Graduates of California high schools will presumably be holding that very important key.

The National Math Panel has made clear its position on algebra in the following findings and recommendations:

The Task Group affirms that algebra is the gateway to more advanced
mathematics and to most postsecondary education.

All schools and teachers must concentrate on providing a sound and strong mathematics education to all elementary and middle school students so that all of them can enroll and succeed in algebra.

It is much more important for our students to be soundly prepared for algebra and then well taught in algebra than to study algebra at any particular grade level.

The National Math Panel also supports the drive for algebra by eighth grade. In the progress report of September 2007, the Conceptual Knowledge and Skills Task Group Progress Report stated, "Federal and state policies should give incentives to schools to offer an authentic Algebra I course in Grade 8, and to prepare a higher percentage of students to enter the study of algebra by Grade 8."

So, is your child on the path to algebra by grade eight? If not, you might want to push for answers and ultimately for change. Researchers have found that delaying algebra until high school puts students at a distinct disadvantage to those who take algebra by eighth grade. But don't wait for middle school to do something about it. By then, it may be much too late.

According to the National Math Panel, "The coherence and hierarchical nature of mathematics dictate the foundational skills that are necessary for the learning of algebra. By the nature of algebra, the most important among them is proficiency with fractions (including decimals, percent, and negative fractions). The teaching of fractions must be acknowledged as critically important and improved before an increase in student achievement in algebra can be expected." The importance of a coherent elementary curriculum that prepares students for algebra cannot be underestimated.

California is under the microscope in this important endeavor. As we look to California as a model of success, it is important to recognize that it is still very much in the nascent stage of accomplishing this important goal. It's certainly not an easy road to travel and along the way they have become a target of the naysayers.

Nevertheless, algebra by eighth grade is the challenge we must all be prepared to take on if the goal is get through this math debacle. There is hope at the end of the tunnel, if we're willing to dig our way out.

We certainly have an important choice to make. Like California, we can choose to bite the bullet and endure a little pain for gain, or instead, we can pretend that math is all fun and games and keep shooting ourselves in the foot.


Instructivist said...

Here in Chicago the benchmark test has algebra questions like inequalities, deriving an equation from a graph, etc. At the same time, the board prescribes Connected Math for the middle grades of faiing schools through CMSI. CMP doesn't do much to prepare for algebra. Strange disconnect. If the state got serious about requiring algebra, the district would have to ditch these fuzzy programs.

concernedCTparent said...

That's why the work of the National Math Panel has the potential to be so significant. In the process of defining the expectation of authentic algebra by eighth grade, it should become clear that curricula such as CMP is NOT what they are referring to.

Thus far, the panel has defined the major topics of algebra to include:

Symbols and Expressions
• Polynomial expressions
• Rational expressions
• Arithmetic and finite geometric series

Linear Relations
• Real numbers as points on the number line
• Linear equations and their graphs
• Solving problems with linear equations
• Linear inequalities and their graphs
• Graphing and solving systems of simultaneous linear equations

Quadratic Relations
• Factors and factoring of quadratic polynomials with integer
• Completing the square in quadratic expressions
• Quadratic formula and factoring of general quadratic
• Using the quadratic formula to solve equations

Algebra of Polynomials
• Roots and factorization of polynomial forms
• Complex numbers and operations
• Fundamental theorem of algebra
• Binomial coefficients (and Pascal’s triangle)
• Mathematical induction and the binomial theorem

• Combinatorics and Finite Probability

"The list of Major Topics of School Algebra, accompanied by a
thorough elucidation of the mathematical connections among these topics, should be the main focus of Algebra I and Algebra II standards in state curriculum frameworks, in Algebra I and Algebra II courses, in textbooks for these two levels of algebra whether integrated or otherwise, and in end-of-course assessments of these two levels of algebra.

The Task Group also recommends use of the list of Major Topics of
School Algebra in revisions of mathematics standards at the high
school level in state curriculum frameworks, in high school textbooks organized by an integrated approach, and in grade-level state assessments using an integrated approach at the high school, by Grade 11 at the latest."

concernedCTparent said...

If the state got serious about requiring algebra, the district would have to ditch these fuzzy programs.

One can only hope.

concernedCTparent said...

Point of reference: California Standards: Algebra I Sample Problems

Anonymous said...

Our district's curriculum director still contends that CMP WILL provide the authentic algebra as defined by the NMP. They are working very hard to spin the NMP report in such a way to say Investigations and CMP are still acceptable.

concernedCTparent said...

I am fairly certain that if pressed for an answer, our district would contend the same. They are so committed to what they're doing, they fail to see the forest for the trees. I know, for certain, our district has at least 2-3 more years before they would even consider a change in math curricula. That means Everyday Math and CMP will eventually trickle into the high school as well. At that point, they will probably argue that we need integrated mathematics in the high school because the reality will be that those students spoon fed EM and CMP won't be ready for anything else.

The Math Panel itself acknowledges that this process is going to take at least a decade. My kids can't wait that long. I'm sure yours can't either.

This is a process and it's going to be a very long one. The alternatives we have are not ideal, but at this point they are what we have available. We can supplement with other material (Singapore Math), enroll our children in tutoring (Kumon, etc.), hire a private tutor, or homeschool. Each choice comes at great cost and sacrifice on behalf of both student and parent, but it's either that or wait for the schools to do the right thing. I vote for personal action myself.

Anonymous said...

I agree that parents are in a difficult position. Fighting for wholesale change is unlikely to help our own kids.

My middle schooler goes to Kumon. She is classified as "gifted" but tested into Kumon at 2 years behind grade level. Now she sits in CMP math class and the other kids argue over who gets to be in her group so they can copy her.

I am at a loss as to how to get through to our admininstration. It is like they are in a cult. The only thing they will change as a result of the Math Panel is their talking points. And they are nowdetermined to bring IMP to the HS despite the findings of the panel.

Our district recently conducted a parent survey. It showed only 49% percent of parents satisfied with our math program and a full one third responded that they have hired math tutors. The administration says it is likely "overstated" but offered no evidence for this conclusion.

I'm beginning to think that the wealthiest districts with money to jump on any bandwagon are the most dangerous.