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Algebra 2: Do all students need it?

Algebra 2 for all?

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Education Week has a story today on an ongoing flash point on this blog: Should all Georgia high school students take higher math courses?

Ed Week focuses on Algebra 2 in its story today, asking whether all high schoolers be held to the higher math expectations of the Common Core State Standards  -- even though some  teens will not attend college and likely not need such advanced math skills.

On the “yes” side, the article references Linda Rosen of Change the Equation, who wrote in a May Huffington Post piece:

Without a state requirement for Algebra II, low-income or minority students may be steered into less challenging courses. There is ample evidence that well-heeled white or Asian students are encouraged to take rigorous courses while low-income and minority students are not. Without challenging graduation requirements, this gap is unlikely to shrink, burying our hopes of diversifying the STEM workforce.

Without strong high school course requirements, students often make premature and uninformed decisions about their future. How many 13- or 14-year-olds know what they want to be when they grow up? If they don't take Algebra II in high school, students will be out of the running for a host of careers, from engineering to health care. We run the risk of enabling middle school students to set out on a very early path that narrows their future. A broad foundation in math opens doors later on, especially as old jobs disappear and entirely new industries that we have yet to even imagine come on the scene.

Job relevance should not be the only measure of what a high school class is worth. There are many, many things I learned in high school--from Shakespeare to cell biology--that I don't use in my job. That doesn't mean that the skills, the way of thinking, taught in those courses are not worth learning. That certainly doesn't mean that we should simply chuck them out of the classroom

On the “no” side is a recent report from the National Center for Education and the Economy. In the report "What Does It Really Mean to Be College and Work Ready?" researchers looked at the  English literacy and mathematics required for success in the first year of community college and concluded: 

The most advanced mathematics content used in the vast majority of the first-year college programs we analyzed can reasonably be characterized as the mathematics associated with Algebra 1.25, that is some, but not all, of the topics usually associated with Algebra I, plus a few other topics, mostly related to geometry or statistics. Most of the mathematics that is required of students before beginning these college courses and the mathematics that most enables students to be successful in college courses is not high school mathematics, but middle school mathematics, especially arithmetic, ratio, proportion, expressions and simple equations.

In sum, a substantial part of the high school mathematics we teach is mathematics that most students do not need, some of what is needed in the first year of community college is not taught in our schools, and the mathematics that is most needed by our community college students is actually elementary and middle school mathematics that is not learned well enough by many to enable them to succeed in community college. A significant body of research on teacher knowledge, including the work of Liping Ma, Jim Stigler and Deborah Ball, makes it clear that one reason for this is because the instruction in arithmetic, ratio, proportion, expressions and simple equations that our teachers have received in school and in college falls far short of what it needs to be for them to have a sound conceptual grasp of the mathematics they are asked to teach.

 Here is an excerpt of the Ed Week article, but please read the full piece before commenting:

Should all students take Algebra 2? Florida seemed to say "no" this spring with the passage of a law striking it from graduation requirements. Texas said much the same in legislation Republican Gov. Rick Perry signed this week that also backs away from Algebra 2 for all.

Those steps come as the Common Core State Standards for math set the expectation that all students should meet learning objectives at what's generally considered the Algebra 2 level. The new standards would represent a big shift. About one-quarter of high school students never take the course (or its equivalent), based on recent federal data. Also, some math educators say their Algebra 2 courses are about to get tougher as they align with the common core.

Success in Algebra 2 is often touted as a critical gateway to college and career readiness, but some question that view. During Florida's legislative debate, state Sen. Aaron Bean said some students, if they're not college bound, don't need the course for a good career. And he fears that mandating it is a recipe for a higher dropout rate. Not all students should have to "climb Mount Algebra 2," the Republican declared.

But other states have moved in the opposite direction from Florida, by adopting and recently starting to implement an Algebra 2 requirement, including Arizona, Minnesota, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, and Tennessee. Even so, fewer than half of states have such a requirement. And some of those states have an "opt out" provision for families.

At the high school level, the common core does not call for any specific courses. Rather, it identifies the content and skills students should master by the time they graduate, including in such domains as algebra, geometry, and probability and statistics. (It also contains more advanced, or "plus," standards for students who plan to pursue a STEM major in college.)

However, a common-core appendix suggests several model pathways, including the traditional Algebra 1, geometry, Algebra 2 sequence, as well as integrated courses it dubs Mathematics 1, 2, and 3. The appendix details key content students might tackle in those courses.

William McCallum, a math professor at the University of Arizona who was a lead writer on the math standards, said the more advanced algebra in the common core will likely be difficult for some students to master. In fact, some students "just hit a wall at algebra, period," he said. But the common core, Mr. McCallum said, is carefully designed and sequenced over time to prepare students to succeed with all the algebra in the standards, beginning in kindergarten. "We've tried to build a ramp up to that wall," he said. "There is this whole domain called operations and algebraic thinking, which tries to think about arithmetic as a rehearsal for algebra."

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