America’s math problem

Stop teaching dumbed-down algebra to unprepared eighth graders and we can solve America’s math problem argues Jacob Vigdor in an American Enterprise Institute report. Unprepared students don’t benefit from Algebra Lite and prepared students are turned off to math, he argues.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools pushed most eighth graders into algebra classes, he writes. Students scored much lower on the end-of-course exam than those allowed to take algebra in ninth grade — and accelerated students did worse in geometry. The district abandoned the experiment after two years.

Our math problems are largely “self-inflicted,” Vigdor writes. In order to bring low performers up to the standard, schools have lowered standards.

Closing the achievement gap by improving the performance of struggling students is hard; closing the gap by reducing the quality of education offered to high performers—for example, by eliminating tracking and promoting universal access to “rigorous” courses while reducing the definition of rigor—is easy.

The first step to improving math performance is to concede that students differ in abilities, he concludes.

Algebra for all is a growing trend, notes Sarah Garland on Hechinger Ed. “Schools across the country are gearing up this fall to introduce new common standards, which promise that ‘students who have completed 7th grade and mastered the content and skills through the 7th grade will be well-prepared for algebra in grade 8’.”

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  1. Ted Craig says:

    Our school district had the same problem and has switched back to 9th grade Algebra. Maybe it’s just because I hate it with a passion, but I wonder if part of the problem isn’t that our students (meaning in our district) use Everyday Math for the first six years.

    Our district consistently ranks as one of the best in the state, so I doubt the students are the problem.

  2. Everyday Math generally sucks as a instructional tool (compared to say Singapore or Kumon), but IMO, only students who actually have the aptitude should be taking algebra I in 8th grade (at least in the U.S.A.) and realistically, taking algebra as a 9th grader isn’t the end of the world, I did this back in 1977-78…


    • When my kids were in 8th grade, in very strong schools in MoCo, MD and a Twin Cities suburb, 8th-grade algebra was still honors-only and only those who had done well in pre-algebra were admitted. Some did take it as 7th-graders, even, with the same prereq. At some schools, 8th-grade should be algebra for most, even with honors options. At other schools, few students are ready. Pushing unready, unprepared kids is a really bad idea; math is too sequential/hierarchical.

  3. Cranberry says:

    I’ve read the report. I do agree that schools have been emphasizing programs for low performers at the expense of the top performers. I also agree that tracking would benefit both groups.

    However… There are some points in the report which are not convincing.

    First, the supposed higher income associated with majoring in math-intensive subjects in college. Well, if more students graduated with math-intensive degrees, the income advantage would disappear. Supply & demand, etc. I know of enough marginally employed Physics majors to say that “math-intensive” is too broad a topic. I also wonder how much of the advantage is due to the inclusion of Wall Street workers, who may skew the numbers. How does the comparison look if you exclude Wall Street?

    Definitions of “math-intensive” majors are also problematic. College majors have changed drastically over the last century. Many bio majors are now intensely mathematical–does Vigdor exclude them from the “math-intensive” majors? Biology is not a physical science. Do majors in the computing sciences count? Also, many college students double-major these days. Does a Music major with a minor in Accounting show up under “math-intensive” majors?

    Vigdor writes: As shown in figure 6, the average math SAT score of college-bound male seniors has risen twenty points over the past twenty-five years, even as males’ rate of completing math-intensive study has fallen by one-quarter.

    The substantial rise in average SAT scores starting with mid-1970s birth cohorts suggests curricular reforms beginning in the 1980s were quite beneficial to the average student; however, they must have offered little to students who were proficient at computation and using algorithms to solve problems.

    According to this chart:, the average math SAT score of college-bound male seniors has risen by 8 (eight) points from 1986 (523) to 2011 (531). I am also not certain how Vigdor deals with the 1995 recentering of the SAT. I presume the College Board figures report scores adjusted to the recentered scale.

    The fixation on the choice of “math-intensive major” as a yardstick for mathematical preparation is strange. He does not cover the absolute number of math-intensive majors. When GIs and then women increased the number of college graduates, what happened to the absolute numbers of math-intensive majors?

    I ask because colleges don’t automatically increase the number of professors, etc., to match what pundits think they should produce. Colleges are notorious for washing students out of Engineering and Pre-med tracks. When more students want to major in certain subjects, that may mean more are discouraged from continuing. “Look to your right, and look to your left, two of you will not be here in the Spring.” If colleges function as a bottleneck, every female engineering graduate could mean the loss of a male engineering graduate. It would have been better to consider this possible effect.

    During the tech boom before 2000, many “mathy” students chose to jump into Silicon Valley, etc., rather than complete a college degree. That would decrease the number of math-intensive graduates, but not because they couldn’t hack college math.

    Finally, the international comparisons are interesting, but that we fell behind Luxembourg, Poland, Hungary and Germany is not necessarily due to faulty math curriculum choices. Since 1992, those four European countries have had a total fertility rate below 2 births per woman. Some were consistently significantly lower, around 1.3 or 1.4. The US has not. This perforce means that the four comparison countries have smaller families on average than the US. Smaller families allow more intense cultivation of children, in particular it’s easier to invest a greater share of the family’s time, energy, and resources in each child.

  4. The first step to improving math performance is to concede that students differ in abilities, he concludes.

    Eliciting the response given to the Voldemort Supporters.  It’s literally a “hate fact”.