Algebra has long been a controversial topic in schools. Photo by Yan Krukau.

A 30-page report issued in March 2024 accused Stanford University professor Jo Boaler of grossly misrepresenting the research used to justify getting rid of algebra instruction in California public middle schools.

Contested topics include Boaler’s claim that timed tests cause student anxiety leading to weaker performance, that removing grades improves performance, and that mixing students of varying mathematical abilities in one classroom boosts achievement across the board. 

The latter claim, in particular, was used as justification to forbid the teaching of algebra in eighth grade– in the name of equity.

This is in stark contrast to math education in the rest of the world.

“Growing up in the USSR, I learned enough math through the sixth grade to never open a math textbook in the U.S. upon arriving here at the end of seventh grade until I took calculus my senior year of high school,” NYC parent Anna Zhuravitsky recalls. “ “Algebra and so much more can be taught to kids here. Kids are underestimated in terms of their math abilities.”

Teaching algebra has long been controversial, both nationally and locally. As far back as 1933, David Snedden, commissioner of education for Massachusetts, asserted that “algebra… is a nonfunctional and nearly valueless subject for 90%of all boys and 99% of all girls – and no changes in method or content will change that.”

More recently, then San Francisco School Chancellor Richard Carranza boasted how his getting rid of eight grade algebra in public schools in 2014 proved a great step forward in equity. He quoted Bob Moses, founder of the 1982 Algebra Project, who once said that “unequal access to high-quality education is a comparable injustice to unequal access to the ballot box and is the clearest manifestation of the nation’s caste system.” 

Rather than giving all SF children more, Carranza opted to give them all less. Take that, caste system! Now everyone is equally behind!

Using Boaler’s currently under-fire research to prove that only benefits, and no harm, would come from “mixed ability grouping,” Carranza also crowed that, after his edict went into effect, poor and minority students’ math scores inched up, while middle-class kids’ stayed the same. (In 2017, the NAACP wanted a state of emergency declared over the achievement gap for Black students, while San Francisco was declared California’s worst county for minorities, but why let facts get in the way of a victory lap?)

Then, something interesting happened. That same Richard Carranza was named chancellor of NYC Schools in 2018. Wherein, he and then-Mayor Bill de Blasio announced their new initiative: Algebra For All

Many elementary students lack a solid math foundation, setting them up for failure in algebra and geometry. Photo by Monstera Production

Their press release explained:

Through Algebra for All, by 2022, every student will have access to algebra in eighth grade, complete algebra no later than ninth grade, and there will be academic supports in place in elementary and middle school to help more students become ready for algebra in eighth grade.

This unexplained about-face change was declared a great step forward in equity.

But public school parent Cynthia K. believes the groundwork should be laid even earlier – also in the name of equity. She says, “Algebra should be introduced starting in third grade by being woven into existing math curriculum. Each year it should be built on and the full subject should be taught in middle school. It should be offered at least by seventh for those interested and required by eighth grade. There is no reason to delay algebra. In fact, a delay puts NYC public school students at a disadvantage locally, nationally and internationally.”

Richard Carranza is no longer NYC Schools chancellor. Bill de Blasio is no longer NYC mayor. Yet algebra instruction is still a hotly debated issue.

NYC mom Sveta L. shared, “I think algebra should be taught starting in seventh grade. But, the issue for many kids is inadequate preparation in elementary school. Kids do not have good command of arithmetic and pre-algebra as many elementary school teachers do not know how to teach and are often afraid of math themselves. Without a super solid foundation, middle and high school kids are set up for failure in algebra and geometry. To me, fixing elementary school math is the answer for the algebra question.”

In November 2023, Chalkbeat wrote about illustrative math, a new curriculum meant to improve and standardize the way algebra is taught:

The stakes are high: Fewer than half of the city’s elementary and middle school students scored proficient on state math exams this year…. Passage rates for high schoolers on the year-end Algebra II Regents exam, which builds on Algebra I, fell a whopping 24 percentage points over the course of the pandemic, from 69% in 2019 to 45% in 2022, according to state data…. At some selective high schools, 100% of students who took the Algebra I Regents exam last year passed. At others, where almost all students are Black or Latino and low-income, zero did.

Perhaps a new curriculum is the answer, or starting instruction earlier. Photo by This Is Engineering

Dad Alex Krut thinks credit for the few passing students should go not to their schools, but because “parents are scrambling, supplementing, homeschooling, hiring tutors to give kids a shot at knowledge.” He believes that, “Fourth graders can handle basic algebra.”

Which brings us to one of Carranza’s biggest faux pas.

In 2019, when arguing for the elimination of Gifted & Talented programs (yet another great step forward in equity, no matter that the pesky research contradicts him), Carranza pronounced, “We probably should be really clear about what we mean about truly gifted. The student that is doing algebra in the third grade, that’s a gifted kid.”

After I quoted him, a teacher wrote to refute that, saying “the kids I teach are in a regular public school and with Common Core now algebra is being included in their third grade math curriculum.”

So maybe NYC kids are starting algebra in third grade. Maybe they’re starting it in seventh. Maybe in eighth. Maybe in high-school. Yet more than half of them aren’t scoring well in state tests beginning in elementary school, which makes teaching any higher level math difficult.

The way to fix that might be a new curriculum. The way to fix that might be by starting instruction earlier. Or later. Or not at all. This fractious debate has been going on for close to a century.

All we know right now is, if we try to fix our ongoing mathematical crisis using guidelines issued by Boaler, we may end up falling even further behind. Which would be inequitable for everybody.

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