Cambridge, Massachusetts, has announced that eighth graders will no longer be able to take algebra 1 at their public middle schools, making it much less likely that such students would be eligible to take calculus come senior year, if the traditional ninth-grade algebra 1, 10th grade geometry, 11th grade algebra 2, 12th grade pre-calculus trajectory is the only path available.
This was the reason given for the adjustment: Many students continue to reel from pandemic-related learning losses and are not ready to take algebra I before high school, and offering it only for those who are prepared… would only widen the persistent disparities of educational performance among subgroups.
On the opposite side of the country, in San Francisco, algebra 1 was removed from eighth grade as far back as 2014 due to “high Algebra 1 failure rates and big racial gaps in the percentages of students progressing to higher-level math—AP calculus and AP statistics in particular. Its solution: Have all students take Algebra 1 — the foundational course of high school math — in ninth grade.”
So, almost 10 years later, how did that work out? According to a recently released report, “Black and Hispanic eleventh-graders in San Francisco score about the same as or lower than the typical fifth-grader who took the same math test. Black eleventh-graders fall just short of the threshold for being considered proficient in fourth-grade math and well below the cut point for demonstrating fifth-grade proficiency. The situation is appalling…. SFUSD evidenced greater inequities than state averages in 2015, and that relative underperformance worsened by 2019.”
And where does New York City fall in this East Coast/West Coast battle?
Here’s where it gets interesting. The San Francisco schools chancellor who touted the benefits of getting rid of Algebra 1 in eighth grade in the name of equity was one Richard Carranza. In 2018, that same Mr. Carranza took the position of New York City schools chancellor. Here, he was just as enthused about “algebra for all,” promising that, “by 2022, every student will have access to algebra in eighth grade.”
So, almost five years later, how did that work out?
In Mr. Carranza’s defense, when he made the above vow in 2019, he had no way of knowing that, less than a year later, his public schools would shut down due to Covid-19.
By the time they reopened, Carranza was gone, and the new battle was about whether middle schools would still be able to offer honors programs, and, consequently, if they could admit students based on grades and/or test scores.
Come November 2022, families received their answer: save the citywide accelerated Gifted and Talented programs, which accepted the majority of their students in kindergarten, and a handful of middle schools, primarily in poor and minority neighborhoods, who insisted on the unfashionable idea that their students could perform as well as white affluent ones. Most NYC middleschools, especially those which previously could select their students and thus were dubbed “high-performing,” were to switch permanently to lottery based admissions.
Some parents were incensed. As a sop, Queens districts 25 (Flushing and Kew Gardens Hills) and 29 (Laurelton, Cambria Heights and parts of Jamaica) increased the number of screened admission seats, but only for certain programs, not entire schools.
Meanwhile, Kelly McGuire, superintendent of Manhattan’s District 2, which stretches from Battery Park City through Tribeca, the West Village, Chelsea, Hell’s Kitchen, and all the way up the Upper East Side, including Roosevelt Island, promised that, despite the lottery, “all schools will have honors math programs that run from sixth through eighth grade.”
School is set to begin next month, and many parents still don’t know how students will be selected for this alleged honors track, or what the curriculum will be.
Some, like Salk School of Science, remind people that “our eighth grade students have the option of taking the algebra high school regents,” while East Side Middle School promises “all eighth graders will take algebra I, with a Regents Exam.”
But those are hold-over claims from the days when both schools, and many more like them, requested grades and test scores which made it possible to admit only those students who they knew would be ready to tackle algebra 1 in eight grade. That’s no longer the case.
For instance, even before the pandemic, a screened middle school in District 3 (Upper West Side), Booker T. Washington, set aside 25% of its seats for low-performing students.
So, how did that work out?
The following year, a mother railed at a Community Education Council meeting, “They don’t know what to do with the low-scoring kids who got into these ‘great’ schools, and now they have no support. Do you know how they’re supporting my daughter? They’re not returning my calls. They have no plan!” While another parent chimed in, “Our teachers thought they were such great teachers. Until they had to teach kids who didn’t come in already knowing the material, and who couldn’t get help at home or from a tutor.”
So the parents of high-performing students aren’t happy. The parents of low-performing students aren’t happy.
No algebra 1 in eighth grade didn’t work, and “algebra for all” didn’t work.
Would it be too much to ask, six weeks before the start of the 2023-2024 academic year, for those in charge to stop trying to solve problems with a single, sweeping initiative, and instead, consider the individual needs of individual children?
Remember children? The ones whom adults are supposedly making these changes for?
Single, sweeping initiatives are based on the idea that all students are the same, and what works for one will work for all.
That’s nonsense which every parent who has had more than one child, and every teacher who has taught more than one child knows.
Let’s stop trying to educate “all” children in one way, and work on educating “every” child in their own way. Let’s pretend that it’s the kids who actually matter.