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.

pushing back

State’s most drastic school intervention plans won’t work, say Memphis board members

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Shelby County Schools board member Stephanie Love

School board members in Memphis are pushing back on the state’s plan to intervene in two low-performing schools.

In their first public discussion of an intervention plan outlined this month by the Tennessee Department of Education, members of Shelby County’s board of education said they aren’t convinced the most drastic recommendations will work for Hawkins Mill Elementary and American Way Middle schools.

The state has recommended closing Hawkins Mill because of its low enrollment and poor academic performance. American Way is on the state’s track either for takeover by Tennessee’s Achievement School District or transfer to a charter organization chosen by Shelby County Schools beginning in the fall of 2019.

But school board members said they’d rather move both schools to the Innovation Zone, a turnaround program run by the local district which has had some success since launching in 2012.

And Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said he wants to keep Hawkins Mill open because the Frayser school is in its first year under his “critical focus” plan to invest in struggling schools instead of just closing them.

“I would prefer to stay the course,” he told board members Tuesday evening. “I don’t think the board should be forced to close something by the state.”

Whether local school leaders can make that call is up for debate, though.

The intervention plan is the first rolled out under Tennessee’s new tiered school improvement model created in response to a 2015 federal education law. State officials say it’s designed for more collaboration between state and local leaders in making school improvement decisions, with the state education commissioner ultimately making the call.

But Rodney Moore, the district’s chief lawyer, said the state does not have the authority to close a school if the board votes to keep it open.

Both Hawkins Mill and American Way are on the state’s most intensive track for intervention. The state’s plan includes 19 other Memphis schools, too, with varying levels of state involvement, but only Hawkins Mill and American Way sparked discussion during the board’s work session.

Until this year, Hawkins Mill was one of the few schools in the Frayser community that hadn’t been under a major improvement plan in the last decade — unlike the state-run, charter, and iZone schools that surround it. But last year, Hopson’s “critical focus” plan set aside additional resources for Hawkins Mill and 18 other struggling schools and set a three-year deadline to turn themselves around or face possible closure.

School board members Stephanie Love, whose district includes Hawkins Mill, said that timeline needs to play out. “I am in no support of closing down Hawkins Mill Elementary,” she said. “We have what it takes to fully educate our children.”

PHOTO: Tajuana Cheshier
Protests over the state takeover of American Way Middle School in 2014, which is in Rep. Raumesh Akbari’s district in Memphis, motivated her to file legislation designed to limit the power of the state’s Achievement School District.

American Way Middle has been on the radar of local and state officials for some time. In 2014, the state explored moving it to the ASD, but that didn’t happen because the southeast Memphis school had higher-than-average growth on student test scores. American Way has not kept up that high growth, however, and Chief of Schools Sharon Griffin considered it last year for the iZone.

Board member Miska Clay Bibbs, whose district includes American Way, was opposed to both of the state’s intervention options.

“What you’re suggesting is something that’s not working,” Bibbs said of the ASD’s track record of school turnaround based on its charter-driven model.

Bibbs added that any improvement plan for American Way must be comprehensive and offered up a resolution for consideration next week to move the school into the iZone next school year.

“We can no longer be: change a principal, tack on an extra hour. It has to be a holistic approach,” she said, adding that feeder patterns of schools should be part of the process.

Turnaround 2.0

McQueen outlines state intervention plans for 21 Memphis schools

PHOTO: TN.gov
Candice McQueen has been Tennessee's education commissioner since 2015 and oversaw the restructure of its school improvement model in 2017.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen has identified 21 Memphis schools in need of state intervention after months of school visits and talks with top leaders in Shelby County Schools.

In its first intervention plan under the state’s new school improvement model, the Department of Education has placed American Way Middle School on track either for state takeover by the Achievement School District or conversion to a charter school by Shelby County Schools.

The state also is recommending closure of Hawkins Mill Elementary School.

And 19 other low-performing schools would stay under local control, with the state actively monitoring their progress or collaborating with the district to design improvement plans. Fourteen are already part of the Innovation Zone, the Memphis district’s highly regarded turnaround program now in its sixth year.

McQueen outlined the “intervention tracks” for all 21 Memphis schools in a Feb. 5 letter to Superintendent Dorsey Hopson that was obtained by Chalkbeat.

Almost all of the schools are expected to make this fall’s “priority list” of Tennessee’s 5 percent of lowest-performing schools. McQueen said the intervention tracks will be reassessed at that time.

McQueen’s letter offers the first look at how the state is pursuing turnaround plans under its new tiered model of school improvement, which is launching this year in response to a new federal education law.

The commissioner also sent letters outlining intervention tracks to superintendents in Nashville, Chattanooga, Knoxville, and Jackson, all of which are home to priority schools.

Under its new model, Tennessee is seeking to collaborate more with local districts to develop improvement plans, instead of just taking over struggling schools and assigning them to charter operators under the oversight of the state-run Achievement School District. However, the ASD, which now oversees 29 Memphis schools, remains an intervention of last resort.

McQueen identified the following eight schools to undergo a “rigorous school improvement planning process,” in collaboration between the state and Shelby County Schools. Any resulting interventions will be led by the local district.

  • A.B. Hill Elementary
  • A. Maceo Walker Middle
  • Douglass High
  • Georgian Hills Middle
  • Grandview Heights Middle
  • Holmes Road Elementary
  • LaRose Elementary
  • Sheffield Elementary
  • Wooddale High

These next six iZone schools must work with the state “to ensure that (their) plan for intervention is appropriate based on identified need and level of evidence.”

  • Sheffield Elementary
  • Raleigh-Egypt High
  • Lucie E. Campbell Elementary
  • Melrose High
  • Sherwood Middle
  • Westwood High

The five schools below will continue their current intervention plan within the iZone and must provide progress reports to the state:

  • Hamilton High
  • Riverview Middle
  • Geeter Middle
  • Magnolia Elementary
  • Trezevant High

The school board is expected to discuss the state’s plan during its work session next Tuesday. And if early reaction from board member Stephanie Love is any indication, the discussion will be robust.

“We have what it takes to improve our schools,” Love told Chalkbeat on Friday. “I think what they need to do is let our educators do the work and not put them in the situation where they don’t know what will happen from year to year.”

Among questions expected to be raised is whether McQueen’s recommendation to close Hawkins Mill can be carried out without school board approval, since her letter says that schools on the most rigorous intervention track “will implement a specific intervention as determined by the Commissioner.”

Another question is why the state’s plan includes three schools — Douglass High, Sherwood Middle, and Lucie E. Campbell Elementary — that improved enough last year to move off of the state’s warning list of the 10 percent of lowest-performing schools.

You can read McQueen’s letter to Hopson below: