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.

PHOTO: Demetrius Freeman/Mayoral Photography Office
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.

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.

Decision makers

5 things to know about Austan Goolsbee, the high-powered new addition to Chicago’s school board

PHOTO: Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images
In 2013, Austan Goolsbee testified before the Congressional Joint Economic Committee on Capitol Hill about the nation's economic recovery

Chicago’s school board is once again complete after outgoing mayor Rahm Emanuel chose a University of Chicago economist to fill a long-vacant seat.

Austan Goolsbee, an economics professor at University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, will round out the seven-member, mayor-appointed board that sets education policy in the city.

Here are five things to know about Goolsbee:

  1. Like Emanuel, he served in the Obama White House. Goolsbee was as a close adviser to President Barack Obama, eventually becoming chair of his Council of Economic Advisors. The Chicago Teachers Union see this tie as a liability. “Mr. Goolsbee comes into a board responsible for students and their schools being starved of resources for the last eight years by the man who appointed him,” the union said in a statement. “Those same neighborhoods continue to struggle from the consequences of a foreclosure crisis that the administration he served in Washington failed to address.”
  2. He has weighed in on education before. A prolific opinion writer, he has written favorably about the economic arguments for universal prekindergarten, a priority for the outgoing mayor, saying that expanding early childhood education is a bargain over the long term. In a 2015 survey of economists’ positions on public issues, Goolsbee expressed optimism about “value-added” measures that try to isolate the impact of individual teachers on student test scores — though he qualified the approach as having “lots of noise and unobservables.” Expressing uncertainty about vouchers, Goolsbee said he fears that letting parents use public funds to pay for private school tuition could harm public schools, which have fixed costs cannot easily be reduced when students leave them. (A tax-credit version of vouchers launched in Illinois last year but now faces an uncertain future under a new Democratic governor.)
  3. He’ll bring a focus on fiscal policy to a board that oversees a big and uncertain budget. A close economic adviser to President Obama and prolific commenter on matters of economic policy in the national media, he’s joining a board that oversees $8 billion in outstanding debt. Chicago has credited the passage of an equitable funding bill, in 2017, for helping stabilize its finances. But the district’s economic future is uncertain, especially as families continue to leave the city.
  4. His personal public school experience is limited. He attended an elite private high school in the suburbs of Boston where he grew up, and his children attended the University of Chicago’s Lab School both before and after the family’s time in Washington, D.C., he has said in interviews.
  5. He’s got a following, and a sense of humor. For proof, check out his Twitter feed, which has 80,000 followers, and his October appearance on the popular NPR quiz show “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me.” Plus, his official University of Chicago profile lists a special interest in improv comedy. That sets him apart from the rest of the school board members, who tend to keep a low public profile.  

How long Goolsbee serves could depend on what happens after Emanuel leaves office in early 2019. Chicago’s mayor has controlled the city school board since 1995, but Emanuel’s decision not to seek a third term has heightened debate about whether the city’s schools have benefitted.

In 2011 and 2015, voters backed non-binding resolutions that would make the board democratically elected. Now, two of the leading candidates in the mayor’s race, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle and state comptroller Susana Mendoza, have said they’d support an elected school board — reducing their own power over education if they become mayor.

How soon a change could happen is unclear, but state lawmakers who would have to sign off on such a change have an ally in Gov.-elect J.B. Pritzker, who has said he supports the call for an elected school board.

The issue was a point of debate at a Chalkbeat Chicago event this week at Malcolm X College. At the event, titled “Education for All? Chicago’s Next Mayor and the Future of Public Schools,” some panelists voiced concern that elections would be dominated by well-organized factions, such as the teachers union, that would have the ability to outspend other candidates.

Super Search

The pressing question at Denver’s final forum: How will Susana Cordova tackle inequity?

PHOTO: AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post
Susana Cordova poses for a portrait in December 2018.

The challenges that Susana Cordova will face if she’s hired next week as superintendent of the Denver school district were laid bare at a public forum Tuesday night.

Standing in a high school cafeteria with a microphone in her hand, the deputy superintendent and sole finalist for the top job faced tough questions about why struggling schools have high numbers of inexperienced teachers, whether she would commit to removing all police officers from schools, and what she would do about what one student called the “charter-ization” of Denver Public Schools — that is, the district’s practice of replacing low-performing district-run schools, sometimes with charter schools.

The most heated and emotional exchanges, however, were about inequities: Why is the district not serving black, Latino, and Native American students as well as white students? Why do test score gaps exist between students from poor families and those from wealthier ones?

Onecia Garcia, a senior at East High School, the city’s largest school and one of its most diverse, told Cordova there is a noticeable gap at East between the kids whose parents have money to pay for tutors and SAT prep courses, and the kids whose parents don’t.

“I want to know what your plan is to get that gap in order,” Garcia said.

In response to Garcia’s question and others like it, Cordova acknowledged that institutional racism exists in Denver Public Schools and has contributed to those gaps. She said the district needs to do a better job informing families about opportunities such as free SAT help and concurrent enrollment classes that allow students to earn college credit while in high school.

Cordova, who grew up in Denver and climbed the district ranks from teacher to her current position of deputy superintendent, talked about making it mandatory for all teachers to undergo training on bias and being culturally responsive, instead of allowing some to opt out.

Cordova said one of her top priorities would be to take the myriad and disparate efforts the district has started over the years to address specific inequities and combine them into one comprehensive plan. She called it “an equity plan that is for all kids, but that also has the specifics for African-American kids, for Latino kids, for low-income kids.”

“It is important that we’re not introducing too many things that you can’t keep a focus,” she said. “I think that’s a valid criticism of the work that we’ve done: We’ve introduced too many things that have made it hard to understand what is the progress that we’re trying to get at.”

But after the forum, Garcia said she didn’t feel Cordova had fully answered the questions. Other students who attended said they felt the same way.

“She wasn’t willing to commit to anything,” said Jonathan Bateman, a freshman at George Washington High School, where the forum was held.

“She answered questions like a politician,” said Carlye Raabe, also a freshman at George Washington.

Cordova emphasized that if she’s hired as superintendent, she’ll approach the job differently than her predecessor, Tom Boasberg, who stepped down in October after nearly 10 years of leading Denver Public Schools. Boasberg was often criticized for not listening to the community.

“I believe deeply in the power of relationships,” Cordova said. “I think it’s really important that we’re not just listening to people who think like I think or who sound like I sound, but who have different experiences, because Denver is an incredibly diverse place.”

The school board is expected to vote Monday on whether to appoint Cordova to the top job.