Behind the numbers

As de Blasio aims for algebra in every middle school, can he avoid these common pitfalls?

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder

When Mayor Bill de Blasio recently unveiled his plan to give all eighth-grade students access to algebra, he dove into an issue that has stumped policymakers in the past.

He and others are convinced middle-school algebra classes can catapult students toward high-level math in high school and college. But other districts have faced dilemmas that de Blasio is hoping to avoid — either they reach too few students, often excluding low-income and minority students from critical coursework, or they reach too many, setting up unprepared students for failure.

“I don’t think we have any examples of any district or state successfully getting [all] kids into eighth-grade algebra and having them succeed,” said Joshua Goodman, an associate professor of public policy at Harvard University who studied algebra enrollment in Wake County, N.C.

De Blasio is seeking a middle ground where middle-school algebra courses are universally available, yet students are not required to take them. Still, that compromise leaves the city with a massive challenge: how to make sure that disadvantaged or struggling students are not left out of the new classes, and that the courses are strong enough to set up students for high school.

“Students who successfully pass algebra by the end of ninth grade are more likely to graduate from high school and go on to college or a career,” de Blasio said during his policy announcement in September. “But many students don’t pass algebra by the end of ninth grade because we haven’t prepared them to succeed in the class.”

Why algebra?

De Blasio’s effort to get every middle school to offer algebra could benefit two groups of students.

Mayor Bill de Blasio announced his algebra initiative at Bronx Latin school in September.
Mayor Bill de Blasio announced his algebra initiative at Bronx Latin school in September.

First are high-achieving students who are ready for algebra and need it to be on track to take advanced math in high school, but their middle schools currently are without the course.

Then there are lower-performing students who could use the early exposure to a subject that trips up many students in high school. Almost one in three New York City test-takers in 2014 flunked the Integrated Algebra exam on their first try — a proportion that some worry could climb as the exam becomes more difficult.

Algebra is difficult for so many that some advocate striking it entirely as a graduation requirement. Students who want to fix cars or repair air conditioners should not lose a diploma because they can’t solve for “x,” said Andrew Hacker, a professor at Queens College who has argued against the “algebra for all” movement.

“It’s like saying let’s make all students learn to play the cello,” said Hacker. “The question is why? The cello is a beautiful instrument and all the rest, but not everybody is going to be musical in the rest of their lives.”

But most acknowledge that algebra is a critical subject. Even without pursuing a career in math or science, it is important for students not to freeze when looking at numbers, said Jacob Vigdor, a professor at the Evans School of Public Policy and Governance at University of Washington. And for more advanced students, taking algebra in eighth grade is the easiest way to be on track to take high-level math classes that will help them reach college.

Pitfall 1: Pushing too many kids into algebra

So it’s no surprise that states and districts have sought to enroll more middle-school students in algebra.

In 2008, California made algebra an eighth-grade requirement, and thousands of middle school students poured into algebra classrooms. A study later found that students who had enrolled in eighth-grade algebra performed worse on 10th-grade math tests. Similar stories unfolded in North Carolina and Chicago when schools instituted algebra for all policies.

Julie Spykerman, who taught high school math in Anaheim, Calif., at the time, said she could see right away that the policy hurt students who were not ready for algebra. To compensate for unprepared students, teachers watered down the curriculum and frantically taught to the state’s algebra test, she said, while students memorized concepts to pass the exam, but were lost in higher-level math.

“It just messed things up,” Spykerman said. “It wasn’t pretty. Teachers weren’t feeling good about what they were doing. Kids were failing. Parents were unhappy.”

Pitfall 2: Disadvantaged students are excluded

New York City officials say they don’t want to see students take algebra in eighth grade who are not prepared for it. That’s why they say they are simply making the class an option, not a requirement.

Revamping algebra instruction will take teacher training, curriculum changes, and setting up students early on to grasp more advanced concepts.
PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Revamping algebra instruction will take teacher training, curriculum changes, and setting up students early on to grasp more advanced concepts.

But making advanced classes optional is one reason that fewer disadvantaged students tend to take them, said Goodman, the public policy professor. When teachers are tasked with choosing students for advanced classes, they usually pick high performers who are often privileged, resulting in fewer low-income, black and Hispanic students in the classes, he said.

Goodman said the city must “be proactive in getting all kinds of racial, gender, and income groups to consider those classes equally” and continually monitor its progress.

“You wouldn’t want a world in which somebody opens up access and it becomes all the students from white families,” he said.

The city’s strategy for avoiding that scenario is to offer algebra in every middle school, rather than the 60 percent that currently offer it and among those schools, fewer than 30 percent of students take the state algebra exam.

They’re taking a page from recent efforts to get more black and Hispanic students into advanced high school classes. Historically, schools that enroll a large proportion of black and Hispanic students have

By adding algebra classes at the 40 percent of schools that don’t currently offer it, 15,000 more students will get a chance to take the class, although city officials did not say how they will select students for the classes or what percentage of students they hope will take them.

New York’s challenge occupying the middle ground

The city also has a plan to avoid plunging potentially thousands of students into courses they aren’t prepared for, as other districts have done. That plan is centered on improving math preparation for students long before they reach 8th grade.

Revamping math instruction will take significant teacher training, curriculum changes, and setting up students early on to grasp more advanced concepts.

One of hardest logistical issues may be finding qualified teachers, said Tom Loveless, an education researcher at the Brookings Institution. Often, middle-school teachers are not prepared to teach high-school math, he said.

The city will tackle this issue, in part, by increasing teacher training for fifth-grade teachers this year, which will continue into the summer. It will also start training for middle school teachers in the summer of 2016, continuing into the fall of 2016.

Even with trained teachers, it is hard to teach algebra to students who “think it’s a foreign language,” said Sean Blanks, who teaches middle school math at I.S. 392 in Brownsville. A change will require teaching variables at an earlier age and clearly diagnosing problems when students begin struggling, he said.

Despite these difficulties, Blanks said he thought more of his students could handle an advanced math class if given the right preparation. “It can be done,” he said.

For students, the city plans to increase math support by emphasizing algebra concepts such as operations, fractions, and decimals with all students as early at fifth grade, department officials said. Currently, fractions and operations are part of the 5th grade Common Core curriculum. The city will also add summer programs for rising eighth and ninth graders to bolster their math skills.

Still, it remains an open question how these programs will be implemented and whether they can shift algebra readiness in the nation’s largest school district.

“It’s all about how it’s actually going to get rolled out,” said Kim Nauer, education research director at the New School’s Center for New York City Affairs.

newark notes

In Newark, a study about school changes rings true — and raises questions — for people who lived them

PHOTO: Naomi Nix
Park Elementary principal Sylvia Esteves.

A few years ago, Park Elementary School Principal Sylvia Esteves found herself fielding questions from angst-ridden parents and teachers.

Park was expecting an influx of new students because Newark’s new enrollment system allowed parents to choose a K-8 school for their child outside of their neighborhood. That enrollment overhaul was one of many reforms education leaders have made to Newark Public Schools since 2011 in an effort to expand school choice and raise student achievement.

“What’s it going to mean for overcrowding? Will our classes get so large that we won’t have the kind of success for our students that we want to have?” Esteves recalls educators and families asking.

Park’s enrollment did grow, by about 200 students, and class sizes swelled along with it, Esteves said. But for the last two years, the share of students passing state math and English tests has risen, too.

Esteves was one of several Newark principals, teachers, and parents who told Chalkbeat they are not surprised about the results of a recent study that found test scores dropped sharply in the years immediately following the changes but then bounced back. By 2016, it found Newark students were making greater gains on English tests than they were in 2011.

Funded by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and conducted by Harvard researchers, the study also found the reforms had no impact on student math scores.

And while many Newark families and school leaders agree with the study’s conclusion — that students are making more progress now — they had very different ideas about what may have caused the initial declines, and why English growth was more obvious than math.

Supported by $200 million in private philanthropy, former superintendent Cami Anderson and other New Jersey officials in 2011 sought to make significant changes to the education landscape in Newark, where one third of more than 50,000 students attend privately managed charter schools. Their headline-grabbing reforms included a new teachers union contract with merit-based bonuses; the universal enrollment system; closing some schools; expanding charter schools; hiring new principals; requiring some teachers to reapply for their jobs; and lengthening the day at some struggling schools.

Brad Haggerty, the district’s chief academic officer, said the initial drop in student performance coincided with the district’s introduction of a host of changes: new training materials, evaluations, and curricula aligned to the Common Core standards but not yet assessed by the state’s annual test. That was initially a lot for educators to handle at once, he said, but teacher have adjusted to the changes and new standards.

“Over time our teaching cadre, our faculty across the entire district got stronger,” said Haggerty, who arrived as a special assistant to the superintendent in 2011.

But some in Newark think the district’s changes have had longer-lasting negative consequences.

“We’ve had a lot of casualties. We lost great administrators, teachers,” said Bashir Akinyele, a Weequahic High School history teacher. “There have been some improvements but there were so many costs.”

Those costs included the loss of veteran teachers who were driven out by officials’ attempts to change teacher evaluations and make changes to schools’ personnel at the same time, according to Sheila Montague, a former school board candidate who spent two decades teaching in Newark Public Schools before losing her position during the changes.

“You started to see experienced, veteran teachers disappearing,” said Montague, who left the school system after being placed in the district’s pool of educators without a job in a school. “In many instances, there were substitute teachers in the room. Of course, the delivery of instruction wasn’t going to even be comparable.”

The district said it retains about 95 percent of its highly-rated teachers.

As for why the study found that Newark’s schools were seeing more success improving English skills than math, it’s a pattern that Esteves, the Park Elementary principal, says she saw firsthand.

While the share of students who passed the state English exam at Park rose 13 percentage points between the 2014-2015 and 2015-2016 school years, the share of students who were proficient in math only rose 3 percentage points in that time frame.

“[Math is] where we felt we were creeping up every year, but not having a really strong year,” she said. “I felt like there was something missing in what we were doing that could really propel the children forward.”

To improve Park students’ math skills, Esteves asked teachers to assign “math exemplars,” twice-a-month assignments that probed students’ understanding of concepts. Last year, Park’s passing rate on the state math test jumped 12 percentage points, to 48 percent.

While Newark students have made progress, families and school leaders said they want to the district to make even more gains.

Test scores in Newark “have improved, but they are still not where they are supposed to be,” said Demetrisha Barnes, whose niece attends KIPP Seek Academy. “Are they on grade level? No.”

Chalkbeat is expanding to Newark, and we’re looking for a reporter to lead our efforts there. Think it should be you? Apply here.  

Who Is In Charge

Indianapolis Public Schools board gives superintendent Ferebee raise, bonus

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Lewis Ferebee

Indianapolis Public Schools Superintendent Lewis Ferebee is getting a $4,701 raise and a bonus of $28,000.

The board voted unanimously to approve both. The raise is a 2.24 percent salary increase. It is retroactive to July 1, 2017. Ferebee’s total pay this year, including the bonus, retirement contributions and a stipend for a car, will be $286,769. Even though the bonus was paid this year, it is based on his performance last school year.

The board approved a new contract Tuesday that includes a raise for teachers.

The bonus is 80 percent of the total — $35,000 — he could have received under his contract. It is based on goals agreed to by the superintendent and the board.

These are performance criteria used to determine the superintendent’s bonus are below: