Monday, October 15, 2012

Certainty: Looking for More Than Your Opinion!

For many of us that live and breathe the state of K-12 mathematics education in our country, and the ensuing attack on Algebra as part of the K-12 student learning experience, we have been trying to figure out how to respond in a meaningful way.

This attack on "Algebra" as an essential aspect of learning for all students has been re-kindled in some part due to the emergence of the CCSS for mathematics (which calls for more rigor beyond algebra, and a different understanding of what algebra actually means) and the looming shifts in assessment to take place in the spring of 2015 - which requires all students to demonstrate proficiency in many typical "Advanced Algebra and Statistics" topics.

The attacks are both overt (See the article Is Algebra Necessary) and covert (see your local school board and whether or not they support an outdated practice of creating math levels that "Track" students not "capable" of passing algebra, thus denying them access to a college or career preparatory curriculum ).

Ultimately, for those that question whether algebra is a necessary aspect of the K-12 mathematics learning experience in our country, they are asking the wrong question.

The debate as to whether algebra as a K-12 learning experience is necessary ended in the late 1980's.

It is both necessary and expected for every child.

To suggest anything otherwise is just an opinion. And when it comes to any form of educational policy or practice, your opinion is never enough. It is not sufficient. It is the lowest level of certainty that exists.

The July 29th New York Times Is Algebra Necessary by andrew hacker is listed as an Opinion piece. And perhaps the opinion of a few of his like minded friends. David Bailey in a Huffington post blog presented a well written response on August 1st -Algebra is Essential in a 21st Century Economy presents viable arguments, but once again is steeped in opinion.

The real limit test is whether or not there is a lot more than just opinion behind either side of the debate. Is there a "Preponderance of Evidence" - that this is what we know as a profession, in many different contexts, across rural, suburban, and urban districts, across elementary middle or high school - is there research and data that supports the espoused beliefs? Can we be certain this is what we should pursue?

Is there evidence that if all students have a K-12 algebra learning experience they will learn at higher levels, they will have a greater chance to succeed in college or career, and to persevere in college or career opportunities - all cores of the CCSS?

The answer is yes. 

And it was once again supported by a study released last week, at the  Center for Public Education at the National School Boards Association

The study states as as follows:

"High School Rigor and Good Advice: Setting up Students to Succeed"
 a nationally representative sample of more than 9,000 high school sophomores in 2002 through their second year in college, both two- and four-year institutions, and discovered three factors related to students' chances of success:
  1. High-level mathematics: Taking Pe-calculus, Calculus or math above Algebra II gave student from a high socioeconomic status (SES) a 10 percent better chance of persisting at a four-year college and improved the odds by 22 percent for those from a low SES.
  2. Advanced Placement/International Baccalaureate courses: The study found the more of these courses a student took, the higher their persistence rates were. This was especially true for low-achieving and low-SES students. They got an 18 percent boost in success at four-year colleges and a 30 percent boost at two-year schools if they enrolled in these classes. "It is surprising that we find that simply taking an AP/IB course in any subject improved persistence in college, and that whether a student passes a test for that course isn't as important," the report noted.
  3. Academic advising: Talking to an academic adviser in college either "sometimes" or "often" significantly improved persistence rates as much as 53 percent for low-income students at four-year colleges and 43 percent at two-year schools.
My advice in this blog is to stop asking the question is algebra necessary. It is. But start asking the question what are the conditions, policies and practices we need to create in our nations' high schools so that every child can succeed in learning about algebra, functions, statistics and more. 

And base those practices on more than just our opinions.  


  1. Algebra is a cornerstone of education: true. Hacker's article made me think of the Churchill quote: “Success is stumbling from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm.” It seems Hacker is saying that we should "ease up" on students since algebra is challenging and give them other outlets such as Art or History. Two thoughts: (1) If a parent "eased up" every time something was challenging for their child, would that be in the best interest of their child? No. (2) How many Junior High or High School students know their career path? Very few. Leaving out algebra for the "artistic" students will enable students to avoid the subject because it's "challenging" and they may miss an opportunity to realize they CAN succeed in math.

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