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Experts decry move to eliminate advanced math in middle school

Harms Black and Latino students long term, they say

Tanisha Bhat

School districts should resist the urge to limit advanced math in middle school to give Black, Latino, and low-income students a critical opportunity to succeed academically, several national education experts said recently.

Algebra 1, seen as a gateway to college, not only teaches students equations, graphic functions, and quadratics, but it also provides problem-solving and critical thinking skills required for high school, college or careers in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics or STEM, the experts said.

“If you’re going to do anything with science, you have to have algebra as part of that foundation,” said Richard Harris, an associate dean at Northeastern University’s College of Engineering and a champion for Black students in STEM.   

The value of advanced mathematics at the early grades has been a source of contention nationally in recent years, dividing communities and raising questions about the advantages — and disadvantages — of rigorous math in the early grades.

San Francisco and New York City have eliminated eighth-grade algebra. Belmont is locked in debate over whether reducing the number of options for middle school students in the 2019-2020 school year was the right decision.

The U.S. Department of Education previously likened limits to early algebra as a “leak in the STEM pipeline.”

In nearby Cambridge, advanced math is no longer being offered to middle school students for the time being. The aim was to end learning disparities among students, said the district spokeswoman Sujata Wycoff.

Wycoff noted the toll the pandemic and remote learning had on students, particularly those who were in the advanced math classes who had been falling behind.

Cambridge officials also said they want to ensure students are caught up and that grade-level math concepts are properly covered before students are offered more advanced topics later.

Cambridge’s decision was meant to close a learning gap, but the opposite happened. Many affluent families said they are seeking alternative options outside of the district to give their children access to higher level math classes, such as tutoring or private schools. Low-income students, many of them students of color, have few options to seek such opportunities and support.

Students of color represent more than 60 percent of Cambridge’s nearly 6,630 public school students, including Black students at 22 percent, state data shows. Low-income students account for 35 percent.

In a statement, Cambridge Public Schools leaders said they are “deeply committed to providing a high-quality, rigorous learning experience for all of our students, while also placing a strong focus on addressing the academic achievement and opportunity gaps in our community.”

Next year, the officials said, three out of the seven units in Algebra I will be added to the eighth-grade curriculum. Additionally, students have the chance to opt out of Algebra I by taking a free course over the summer or take two semester-long honors math classes during their freshman year.

Some national education experts said while they believe Cambridge acted out of fairness to their more vulnerable students, they said they disagree with the decision. Harris and others said it is still imperative that students have every opportunity to take advanced classes like Algebra 1 in middle school, so they don’t get far behind their peers when they have to take higher level math courses in high school or pursue STEM careers in the future.

Algebra concepts must be enforced throughout elementary and middle school for students to have a future in science and math, said Benjamin Moynihan, executive director of the Algebra Project, a nonprofit national mathematics education organization focused on strategies to raise math literacy for K-12 students.

“Math literacy is the ability to read, write and reason with the symbol systems of mathematics,” Moynihan said. “So, it’s this combination of not only computational fluency, but also conceptual understanding.”

Harris added that whether students choose to use advanced math or not later in college or for a trade, it still allows them to develop analytical and critical thinking skills.

Denise Walston, former director of mathematics at the Council of Great City Schools, said districts should “cast a wider net” to encourage more Black, Latino and low-income students to take up challenging math courses and provide additional support to students who need it.

“[The school districts’] hesitancy is pushing them too quickly,” said Waltson, whose organization advocates and supports 78 of the largest urban school districts in the country. “But you’ve got to provide options and opportunities for all students. You don’t want to deny students access.”

Harris said early advanced math is “fundamental,” and that education leaders should be “very intentional” in how they prepare students for the biotech industries in Greater Boston.

“This is becoming the equivalent of what Silicon Valley is for the West Coast,’’ he added, “and if we’re not preparing our young people to provide the talent that these companies are looking for, we’re unfortunately selling ourselves short.”

advanced mathematics, middle school