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.

fact-finding mission

Signal Mountain leaders look to Shelby County as model for school district secession

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
From left: Bartlett City Schools Director David Stephens and Lakeland School System Director Ted Horrell update state legislators on their new districts in 2015.

A cluster of towns that broke off from Shelby County Schools to create their own school systems in 2014 is about to host visitors from another Tennessee town looking into the viability of leaving Hamilton County Schools.

A committee from Signal Mountain, on the outskirts of Chattanooga, is scheduled next week to visit with leaders from Arlington, Bartlett, Collierville, Millington and Germantown. Along with Lakeland, the six towns have just completed a third year of operating their own school systems, just outside of Memphis.

Signal Mountain is in its second year of discussions about a possible pullout from the Chattanooga-based district. The community has three of Hamilton County’s higher-performing schools, as well as fewer poor and minority students. Its Town Council created the committee in January to look into the feasibility of creating a separate district, which would siphon off both students and revenue from Hamilton County Schools.

As part of their visit, the seven-member panel will hold open meetings with municipality leaders at Arlington High School. Signal Mountain Mayor Chris Howley and Councilwoman Amy Speek are scheduled to join the sessions.

“We felt it was valuable for us to meet with board members and school officials to gain insight on how the process went, what they learned, what they might do differently,” said committee chairman John Friedl.

“We’re not trying to reinvent the wheel,” he added.

The visit will come days after Shelby County’s secessions were spotlighted in a national report on the trend of wealthier and whiter communities to splinter off from larger school systems that are poorer and more diverse. The report was crafted by EdBuild, a nonprofit research group that focuses on school funding and equity. The report also listed Signal Mountain among nine towns across the nation that are actively pursuing pullouts.

The town of Red Bank, which is just east of Signal Mountain, also recently announced it will investigate launching a separate district.

If Signal Mountain residents vote eventually to create their own school system, they would use the same Tennessee law that allowed municipality voters in Shelby County to exit Tennessee’s largest district. The law, which EdBuild calls one of the most permissive in the nation, allows a town with at least 1,500 students to pull out without the approval of the district it leaves behind or consideration of the impact on racial or socioeconomic equity.

Signal Mountain leaders will focus next week on lessons learned by leaders in Shelby County.

After breaking off in 2014, the municipalities gained about 30,000 students, 33 schools and all of the challenges that come with launching new school systems. That includes funding, staffing and facilities. “We all started out with a central office staff of one, … and we had to build from there,” Millington Municipal Schools Director David Roper said during a 2015 presentation to state lawmakers.

The Shelby County breakaway also ended up in court over charges that the exit was racially motivated. But a federal judge eventually dismissed that lawsuit by Shelby County Schools.

The Signal Mountain exploration also has been met with some community resistance. A group called Stay with HCSD is advocating staying with Hamilton County Schools.

You can view the full schedule of Signal Mountain leaders’ visit below:

essa watch

Growth plus proficiency? Why states are turning to a hybrid strategy for judging schools (and why some experts say they shouldn’t)

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

A compromise in a long-running debate over how to evaluate schools is gaining traction as states rewrite their accountability systems. But experts say it could come with familiar drawbacks — especially in fairly accounting for the challenges poor students face.

Under No Child Left Behind, schools were judged by the share of students deemed proficient in math and reading. The new federal education law, ESSA, gives states new flexibility to consider students’ academic growth, too.

This is an approach that some advocates and researchers have long pushed for, saying that is a better way to judge schools that serve students who start far below proficiency.

But some states are proposing measuring academic growth through a hybrid approach that combines both growth and proficiency. (That’s in addition to using proficiency metrics where they are required.) A Chalkbeat review of ESSA plans found that a number of places plan to use a hybrid metric to help decide which of their schools are struggling the most, including Arizona, Connecticut, Delaware, Louisiana, Massachusetts, and Washington D.C.

The idea has a high-profile supporter: The Education Trust, a civil rights and education group now headed by former U.S. Education Secretary John King. But a number of researchers say the approach risks unfairly penalizing high-poverty schools and maintaining some of the widely perceived flaws of No Child Left Behind.

These questions have emerged because ESSA, the new federal education law, requires states to use academic and other measures to identify 5 percent of their schools as struggling. States have the option to include “academic progress” in their accountability systems, and many are doing so.

This is a welcome trend, says Andrew Ho of Harvard, who has written a book on the different ways to measure student progress. Systems that use proficiency percentages alone, rather than accounting for growth, “are a disaster both for measurement and for usefulness,” Ho said. “They are extremely coarse and dangerously misleading.”

Under a growth-to-proficiency model, Student A would be considered on track to proficiency by grade 6 based on the growth from grades 3 to 4, but students B and C would not. (Image: Ho’s “A Practitioner’s Guide to Growth Models”)

States that propose using this hybrid measure — commonly called “growth to proficiency” or “growth to standard” — have offered varying degrees of specificity in their plans about how they will calculate it. The basic idea is to measure whether students will meet or maintain proficiency within a set period of time, assuming they continue to grow at the same rate. Schools are credited for students deemed on track to meet the standard in the not-too-distant future, even if the students aren’t there yet.

This tends to rewards schools that serve students who are already near, at, or above the proficiency standard, meaning that schools with a large number of students in poverty will likely get lower scores on average.

It also worries researchers wary of re-creating systems that incentivize schools to focus on students near the proficiency bar, as opposed to those far below or above it. That phenomenon has been observed in some research on accountability systems focused on proficiency.

“As an accountability metric, growth-to-proficiency is a terrible idea for the same reason that achievement-level metrics are a bad idea — it is just about poverty,” said Cory Koedel, an economist at the University of Missouri who has studied school accountability. He has argued that policymakers should try to ensure ratings are not correlated with measures of poverty.

Researchers tend to say that the strongest basis for sorting out the best and worst schools (at least as measured by test scores) is to rely on sophisticated value-added calculations. Those models control for where students start, as well as demographic factors like poverty.

“If there are going to be high stakes — and I don’t suggest that there should be — then the more technically rigorous value-added models become the best way to approach teacher- and school-level accountability,” said Ho.

A large share of states are planning to use a value-added measure or similar approach as part of their accountability systems, in several cases alongside the growth-to-proficiency measure.

Some research has found that these complex statistical models can be an accurate gauge of how teachers and schools affect students’ test scores, though it remains the subject of significant academic debate.

But The Education Trust, which has long backed test-based accountability, is skeptical of these growth models, saying that they water down expectations for disadvantaged students and don’t measure whether students will eventually reach proficiency.

“Comparisons to peers won’t reveal whether that student will one day meet grade-level standards,” the group’s Midwest chapter stated in a report on Michigan’s ESSA state plan. “This risks setting lower expectations for students of color and low-income students, and does not incentivize schools to accelerate learning for historically underserved student groups.”

In an email Natasha Ushomirsky, EdTrust’s policy director, said the group supports measures like growth to proficiency over value-added models “because a) they do a better job of communicating expectations for raising student achievement, and b) they can be used to understand whether schools are accelerating learning for historically underserved students, and prompt them to do so.”

Of the value-added approach, Ushomirsky said, “A lower-scoring student is likely to be compared only to other lower-scoring students, while a higher-scoring student is compared to other higher-scoring students. This means that the same … score may represent very different amounts of progress for these two students.”

Marty West, a professor at Harvard, says the most prudent approach is to report proficiency data transparently, but to use value-added growth to identify struggling schools for accountability purposes.

“There are just too many unintended consequences from using [proficiency] or any hybrid approach as the basis of your performance evaluation system,” he said.

“The most obvious is making educators less interested in teaching in [high-poverty] schools because they know they have an uphill battle with respect to any accountability rating — and that’s the last thing we want.”

This story has been updated to include additional information from Education Trust.