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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

Algebra: Gateway or barrier?

“What is so magical about algebra as a math requirement?” asked Eloy Ortiz Oakley, former chancellor of California’s community college system and now head of the College Futures Foundation. For low-income and minority students who aspire to college, it’s a “killing field.”


Bodiam Castle in East Sussex, England

Others see rigorous math, such as eighth-grade algebra, as the gateway to high-paying STEM careers, writes Joe Napolitano on The 74.


Eighth-graders in affluent suburbs have a chance to take algebra, then go on to calculus by 12th grade, says William Crombie, director of professional development at The Algebra Project.“In urban and even rural high schools, they are struggling to accomplish algebra in the 9th grade.”


Many students fell far behind in math when schools were closed, Napolitano writes. "Both California and New York are changing — and, in some cases lowering — math standards so that students meet basic requirements for high school graduation."


Some "try to fix equity by trying to lower the ceiling and remove advanced math options for everyone, or replace them with superficial areas like ‘data science,’”argues Boaz Barak, a computer science professor at Harvard University. That's "counterproductive and harmful."

Such courses, while marketed as alternative pathways, are really “off-ramps” from any quantitative major in college, Barak said. Data science is “a great field,” he added, but for students to grasp the concept, they need a background in statistics, computer science and math: linear algebra and some calculus.
“This means that it can’t be taught properly at the high school level,” he said. “What you can teach is a data literacy course, which teaches you basic tools such as spreadsheets and some notions about plotting data and correlations. The latter is a fine course to teach — but it’s not a math course.”

Black students need access to algebra classes, writes Lane Wright on Education Post. "Across the country, one in four high schools serving mostly Black or Latino students don’t offer Algebra I, a basic step toward college acceptance." He cites a 2018 study by ExcelinEd.


Colleges should rethink math requirements, he writes. Students shouldn't have to learn math they'll never use. But, as long as students need algebra to get into college, high schools must offer it.

18 Comments


Guest
Feb 27, 2023

As a high school teacher of sciences, I can address this:

The problem is NOT Algebra. The real problem is that so few of the entering freshmen have a true competency with math. No amount of PLACING students in Algebra will compensate for that deficiency.

Students struggle to manage simple addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division without use of a calculator (and, if they have accidentally input the problem incorrectly, they cannot recognize that there is an error). They have ZERO understanding of fractions and decimals.

They use calculators like a "Magic Machine" - flip the switch, and get the right answer.

Would we consider students to be competent bread bakers if their level of knowledge was to dump the raw…

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Guest
Feb 25, 2023

When I attended public school, very few students were actually taking Algebra in middle school (grades 7-8), I took Algebra I in the fall of 1977 as a incoming freshman and was an average student (when a C average back then would be an "A" today due to grade inflation).


IMO, Algebra is ONLY a blocker to students who have had piss poor instruction in math in Elementary School (typically grades 1-5 in the US) and pushing buttons on a calculator (which we didn't have back in those days) is NOT actually doing/learning math.


My first scientific calculator was a TI-55 I bought for about $100 in 1979 (back then that 100 dollars could buy 8-10 large brown paper sacks…

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lady_lessa
Feb 26, 2023
Replying to

Hi, Guest, you bring back memories about my first calculator. I got mine in college about 1974. The year I took Physical chemistry there were 7 of us, and only 1 borrowed calculator. (I struggled with a slide rule). The next year there were 7 students again and 7 owned calculators. And I had mine then too.

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Guest
Feb 24, 2023

Funny how ~40 years ago nearly everyone had to take Algebra and nearly everyone passed. The kids haven't changed, only the school system. I feel like Cato, only it's not Carthage that must be destroyed: "The public school system must be destroyed." We have to destroy the system in order to save it.

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Joanne Jacobs
Joanne Jacobs
Feb 28, 2023
Replying to

Back in the day, high schools offered "business math" or "consumer math" to students who weren't college-bound. And fewer high school grads went on to college.

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Guest
Feb 24, 2023

The 74 article has stunning numbers -- 48% participation in 8th grade Algebra in NYC, with a 72% pass rate. That's fantastic - not often one sees that high a percentage of above grade level seats open. My own district only opens one section, roughly 10% of the cohort -- seating policy is disparate impact. Not that I'm complaining, as the course here has to be supplemented due to the academic dumb down so parents of serious students expect to be afterschooling a quality offering at the same time if they haven't already accelerated out of that level.

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Guest
Feb 26, 2023
Replying to

Why bet? The data is available publicly. 8th algebra isn't available to remedial students, but it is available to political placements. What's not available is the number that move on to private high school because they can't get a seat in a nonremedial or selective public NYC high school or they get a scholarship offer that beats out the NYC public selectives.


Your 1,2,3 is the subset of the cohort that is enrolled in 9th grade Algebra in the two year, double period version...i.e. students who need to have no homework and a translator as well as gap fill from previous years.

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Bruce Smith
Bruce Smith
Feb 24, 2023

High schools should expect that students have already mastered algebra, otherwise they're not teaching at a suitably high level; for most American youth, who struggle with this topic, more appropriate guidance would direct them towards apprenticeships, to be combined with vocationally specialized schools, in a dual system.

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Bruce Smith
Bruce Smith
Feb 28, 2023
Replying to

Given current performance trends, which I have long worked to change, I am willing to say that most American whites, Hispanics, and blacks should search for apprenticeships; and if high schools are selective, as they are in many of the educationally leading states, then you can assume that students will have mastered intermediate algebra, because they are tested on algebra as part of their admission process -- rather than idiotic, my statement shows I am internationally informed when speaking about mathematics, which you obviously are not.

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