Improving the success of moderately performing students has been the predominant theory behind mathematics curriculum reform for much of the last few decades, particularly since No Child Left Behind was enacted in 2002. Since then, many district leaders and education reformers began promoting eighth-grade algebra as a means of accelerating math education for later success.
A new report from the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), “Solving America’s Mathematics Education Problem,” examines the effects of this in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg (N.C.) Schools, which initiated eighth-grade algebra in 2002. Researchers concluded that a compromise must be struck between offering students accelerated classes too soon and dumbing-down classes for high-performing students. The report urges legislators and education stakeholders to consider that not all students can master algebra in the eighth grade.
Researchers found that within a two-year span, Charlotte-Mecklenburg students subjected to algebra in the eighth grade scored 13 percentile points lower on a standardized end-of-course test than students permitted to take algebra on a regular schedule, in either grades 9 or 10.
“There’s a difference between mandating algebra in the K12 curriculum and mandating it in eighth grade,” says Jacob Vigdor, an adjunct scholar at AEI and a professor of public policy and economics at Duke University. Vigdor, also the report’s author, believes that while some students are ready to take courses sooner, others may not be.
Vigdor worries that the Common Core State Standards, which aim to raise language arts and math standards across all grades in 48 states, will continue to promote accelerated education.
“The main worry I have about the Common Core is it’s pursuing a one-size-fits-all strategy and promoting a standards-based reform for everyone,” he says.
And schools often focus on those students who have not mastered a concept, and those who already have done so are not pushed further. For struggling students, they are considered a failure if they are not proficient by a certain grade. The end result, says Vigdor, is that colleges see more students taking remedial math to catch up because they never mastered the fundamentals.
Marion H. is a contributing writer to District Administration.