More districts are offering algebra to 8th graders to spur enrollment in higher level math courses during high school. But accelerating the math curriculum represents a complex equation and success hinges on multiple variables.
"Today's students need more math, science and technology courses than ever before," confirms Cathy Seeley, president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. More districts are responding by offering or requiring algebra in 8th grade, potentially enabling more students to enroll in calculus and statistics in high school. But relocating algebra to middle school is a tough transition that may require districts to revisit the entire math curriculum. In addition, pushing algebra down may not be in students' best interests, says Seeley.
The first factor: preparation
The 8th grade algebra trend is a good news/bad news situation. "The good news is that if it's done well districts can meet the goal of increasing enrollment in higher level math. The bad news is that it's hard to do well," explains Seeley. Students and teachers require rigorous support, and the K-12 math curriculum may need to be revamped.
Traditionally, algebra bridges elementary and high school math, opening the door to higher level math. Shifting algebra from 9th to 8th grade presents a subtraction problem. Teachers are left with one less year to provide students with the building blocks for algebraic success. When a district moves algebra to 8th grade, concepts like data analysis and proportionality must be addressed in 7th grade or compressed in the 8th grade algebra course.
Arlington (Va.) Public Schools have offered algebra to 8th grade students for more than a decade; middle school enrollment in algebra increased from 27 percent in 1999-2000 to 48 percent in 2004-05. "We don't want to put students in algebra before they're ready. We've targeted our efforts to develop a high level of readiness among our students," explains Mark Johnston, assistant superintendent of instruction. In Arlington, readiness begins at the elementary level.
Five years ago, the district adopted an elementary math curriculum designed to accelerate understanding of pre-algebra concepts like number sense and problem solving. The district also implemented robust professional development at the elementary and middle school levels.
Many elementary teachers lack sufficient knowledge of math concepts, so elementary level professional development is focused on enhancing understanding of math content, says Johnston. In addition, the district employs 13 math coaches to provide just-in-time coaching and modeling for teachers at its 22 elementary schools.
Middle school professional development, on the other hand, trains teachers to use multiple strategies to foster understanding of algebra concepts. "Sometimes, it takes students two or three ways of looking at a concept to understand it," says Johnston.
The School District of Philadelphia, which enrolled all 15,000 of its 8th grade students in algebra in 2005-06, relies on a slightly different approach. Philly laid the groundwork for its district-wide Algebra8 curriculum in 2003 with the introduction of a double block for middle school math. A double block allows teachers to explore in-depth problems and activities not possible in a traditional 45-minute period, says Seeley. For example, students might compare various cell phone plans, analyzing fixed and variable fees.
Last year, Philadelphia rewrote its 8th grade math curriculum, which already had a heavy emphasis on algebra. "We looked at what existed and compared it to 9th grade algebra and bridged the gap with Algebra8," says Hope Yursa, lead academic coach. Philly not only revamped the what of 8th grade math but also retooled the how of teaching algebra.
Teachers don't stand in front of the room spouting algorithms. The district uses a non-traditional approach. Students review, discover and cement concepts with manipulatives, and the district offers additional math periods on Saturdays and before and after school. A hands-on approach, coupled with additional time, serves all students whether they take algebra in 8th or 9th grade, points out Seeley.
The district supports its middle school math teachers with twice monthly professional development meetings that cover planning, scheduling, content and best practices. The program helps teachers brush up on math content and helps identify them as highly qualified under No Child Left Behind.
Similarly, Arlington collaborates with a local university to offer an in-house algebra certification program for middle school math teachers focused on math content as well as teaching strategies. Consequently, all middle school math teachers are endorsed in math, and many are endorsed in algebra.
The second factor: follow-through
The admirable goal of 8th grade algebra is math acceleration. Unfortunately, the end result may fall short of the goal. "In many districts [with middle school algebra], students finish their math requirement as early as their sophomore year and head off to college taking one or more years off from math. It's a dangerous proposition," opines Seeley. The upshot? Districts aiming to push down algebra must build structures that keep students in math for all four years of high school. Often districts focus on increasing enrollment in Advanced Placement calculus, which may not be appropriate for all students.
Arlington offers a wide range of higher level math courses to meet the needs of a broad range of students. Options include multi-variable calculus, probability and statistics, AP calculus and AP statistics. The district's 8th grade algebra program also opens the door to advanced science courses like physics. Algebra 2 is a prerequisite for physics, so if a student delays algebra 2 until his senior year, physics is out.
Philadelphia hopes to see a significant increase in the number of students who place out of algebra in high school, which would open the door to higher level math and science in high school. Last year, only 200 of the 1,100 8th grade Philadelphia students taking algebra received high school credit.
"Schools need to make sure that the demographics of groups taking their highest level math courses look like the demographics of students enrolled in the lowest level math courses, and both should match the demographics of the school population," states Seeley.
Philadelphia, which enrolls all students in 8th grade algebra, has tackled the challenge at the enrollment level. In Arlington, however, minority students have not enrolled in eighth grade algebra in the same proportion as white students. The good news, says Johnston, is that once students enroll they do well. In fact, nearly 100 percent of the district's 8th graders passed the state assessment and earned a passing grade in the course to receive high school credit last year.
Arlington has developed programs to move toward reaching its goal of balanced racial and ethnic enrollment. For example, teachers encourage minority 6th and 7th graders to enroll in pre-algebra. The district also targets the gap in middle school algebra enrollment by focusing efforts in elementary schools predominantly with high diversity through an accelerated elementary math curriculum. "Students are exposed to more math curriculum each year with some concepts introduced earlier," explains Johnston. The first of these groups reached fifth grade this year; the district will monitor their enrollment in 8th grade algebra.
Lisa Fratt is a contributing editor.