A reply to Opt Out Florida co-founder Sandy Stenoff on middle school Algebra 1: Here’s why I think it’s important – but yes, these decisions are difficult.

Sandy Stenoff, a Central Florida parent of two children in the public schools and a co-founder of the Opt Out Florida Network, tweeted to me in response to a tweet in which I mentioned the rising number of Florida middle school students who are taking Algebra 1. She said, “Middle school math teachers tell me that we are doing children a disservice by pushing them too hard and too fast into Advanced Math. Most don’t fare as well nor continue pursuing more Advanced Math later on, compared to students who start in high school.” Sandy’s comment deserved a thoughtful response, so here I try to provide one. You can follow Sandy on twitter at @1BatMom (which is a very cool handle).

Among Sandy’s achievements is this column in the Washington Post from 2015 on high-stakes testing and young children – in particular, her young children.

Hi Sandy,

To start with, I want to share with you where I’m coming from on this issue. You mostly know already, but I think it’s useful to lay it out.

My goal in most things I do professionally (and with my education advocacy hobby) is to broaden access to careers in fields like engineering and the physical sciences.  We tend to think of these careers as being only for a few elite students, but we’ve learned in recent decades that many more students can succeed in these fields than we thought previously.  I think that every student bound for a four-year college is capable of succeeding in these fields, and I want these students to be prepared so they have the option of making such a choice.

It is very, very helpful for a student who declares a college major in engineering (and pretty much required for a student who declares a major in physics) to have completed a first semester calculus course before starting college. Why? College engineering programs are accredited by an organization whose acronym is ABET – they pretty much define what the professional community of engineers expects a new bachelor’s degree grad in engineering to have done and to know. The physics community doesn’t have such a formal accreditation structure, but we are a smaller community and have a fairly well-defined expectation of what a new bachelor’s degree grad in physics knows. It is difficult (in the case of engineering) or pretty much impossible (in the case of physics) to complete a bachelor’s degree meeting these accreditation requirements or expectations in four years without completing a first calculus course in high school.

For a student to take a first calculus course during the senior year of high school, she or he has to take Algebra 1 no later than 8th grade (the standard math sequence is Algebra 1-Geometry-Algebra 2-Precalculus).

So that’s why I get excited when students take Algebra 1 in middle school.

Now onto the next question: Is it constructive for middle school students to take Algebra 1? The answer is the same as for every other education question: For some students, yes. For other students, no.

I think we all know middle school students who have thrived in Algebra 1 classes. But clearly not all students should take Algebra 1 in middle school. How many should?

Three Duke University researchers examined this question by looking at the experience that the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school district had when they “initiated a broad program of accelerating entry into algebra coursework. The proportion of moderately-performing students taking 8th grade algebra increased from less than half to nearly 90%, then reverted to baseline levels, in the span of just six age cohorts.” In retrospect, we can be horrified at the way that the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school district handled this, but we can also learn from it.

The conclusion reached by the Duke researchers was remarkable for its simplicity:
“The optimal rate of 8th grade algebra-taking is undoubtedly greater than zero. Indeed, our results indicate that the increase in Algebra 1 taking among 7th graders in CMS [Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools] has had no significant adverse long-term effects. Our evidence also suggests that the optimal rate of 8th grade algebra-taking, in a population equivalent to that in CMS, is at or below the observed baseline rate around 50%.”
In seven Florida school districts, 50% or more of the students take Algebra 1 in middle school, according to the recently released results for the 2018 Algebra 1 EOC. Of course, there is nothing magic about that 50% number. Some districts are probably too conservative in steering middle school kids into Algebra 1. For example, in Okeechobee County every one of the 98 7th and 8th graders who took the Algebra 1 EOC passed it, and only about 20% of their students take Algebra 1 in middle school. Some districts may push too many kids into Algebra 1. In Putnam County, only 55% of the 8th graders who took the Algebra 1 EOC passed it.

There are other important aspects to this problem, of course. We have a terrible time attracting students from disadvantaged backgrounds into fields like engineering and the physical sciences. Orange County has tackled this problem head-on through its “Calculus Project”, which recruits rising 7th graders from disadvantaged backgrounds who would not otherwise have been selected for middle school Algebra 1 into taking that course in 7th grade. Does the program doom these kids for failure? Nope. These kids succeed at a high rate because the school district has made the commitment to provide the support these kids needs to succeed, including a math boot camp the summer before 7th grade and after-school sessions during the school year (you can see an Orlando Sentinel article on the program here). The Calculus Project is the most important initiative for getting kids from disadvantaged backgrounds into the STEM pipeline in Florida, and maybe in the southeastern US.

The problem of the severe underrepresentation of women in engineering, computer science and physics is frustratingly stubborn. Only about 20% of the bachelors’ degrees in these fields are awarded to women. Why? There are plenty of factors driving this problem. But here is one that was documented only recently: Middle and high school girls who are good at math often don’t think they are. Boys don’t often have that problem. It’s called the confidence gap, and I am fortunate to have an FSU colleague named Lara Perez-Felkner who is the authority on this.

How should we bring this research to bear on our middle and high school classrooms to open the doors to these careers? We are just starting to explore that question. At the high school in Bay County where I’ve been most involved, Mosley High School, I simply shared about that research with counselors and parents. Those conversations seem to have made deep impressions.

Of course, I can quote statistics and research all day. But if that’s all I did, I’d be failing to acknowledge the deeply personal nature of the decisions that parents, students and educators make about what courses students should take and when. A conversation I had within the last year with our oldest child, a 29-year-old daughter who is a very successful attorney, reminded me about how difficult these conversations can be. This daughter is a wonderful human being as well as a sometimes fearsome lawyer. Her math skills were very strong in high school and college (she was 3rd place in the state Mu Alpha Theta meet in multivariable calculus her senior year of high school), and in meetings populated with high priced attorneys and powerful clients, she is generally the only one who can calculate things. We were talking about the workload she took on in high school, including a full load of AP courses (with a heavy emphasis on science and math) and two swimming workouts per day. Then she said something that caught me completely off-guard: “You mean I had a choice?” I never knew she felt that way – like we were pushing her forward. We always thought she was completely self-motivated. It made me think about how difficult it can be to get academic decisions – and all kinds of other personal decisions – really right.

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