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Algebra for All Doesn’t Add Up

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Algebra for All Doesn’t Add Up

How the narrative about white supremacism in math results in delusional policy October 7, 2020
New York
The Social Order

In recent years, education activists have adopted the argument that white supremacism and the misuse of mathematics explain racial inequality in educational attainment. “On many levels, mathematics itself operates as Whiteness,” University of Illinois professor Rochelle Gutierrez has claimed.

In New York City, school officials and the mayor’s office have embraced this narrative. Schools chancellor Richard Carranza linked black and Hispanic students’ mathematics deficiencies to teachers’ implicit bias. Yet at the same time, Mayor Bill de Blasio’s education masterplan foresees offering algebra, a gateway to higher-level math courses, to all eighth-graders by 2022.

Advocacy groups and even some academics contend that if Latino and black students had access to eighth-grade algebra at the same rate students in the highest-performing schools across New York State, “the additional number of course completions . . . would be 34,126 in Algebra I in middle school, [and] 29,570 in Calculus.”

The desire to expose underprivileged students to more rigorous math curricula is noble, but the idea that black and Latino students would be successful at algebra in the eighth grade at the same rate as the most successful school districts is delusional. It ignores the profound deficits of a large share of students in the most impoverished districts. In 2013, 142 elementary schools registered chronic absenteeism rates of at least one-third of their students; only 18 of these schools achieved a Common Core pass rate of at least 20 percent on the math exam. And the absenteeism and exam scores weren’t any better in middle schools.

Pass rates have not improved since then. Indeed, the most recent data show that only 30 percent of black and Latino students in traditional public schools were math-proficient. Thus, a large share of black and Latino students has neither the skills nor the attendance record needed to be successful in an eighth-grade algebra course.

Previous research has cast doubt on the effectiveness of de Blasio’s “Algebra for All” strategy for middle schools. In many cities that adopted similar programs, failure rates increased, and college attendance was unchanged. One study concluded, “Accelerating algebra to middle school appears benign or beneficial for higher performing students but unambiguously harmful to the lowest performers.” (Chicago had some success by postponing algebra until ninth grade and putting weaker students in a double-math period. This proved more effective for boosting algebra skills, though it meant that these students couldn’t reach a calculus course in high school.)

A better focus would be on giving black and Latino students the basic skills needed to allow them to succeed in their post-secondary endeavors. The vast majority of these at-risk students entered City University of New York community colleges, where 80 percent of incoming freshmen needed remediation in basic skills, most notably mathematics. Only one-third of students enrolled in remedial algebra classes achieved a passing grade. Indeed, so many students were unable to complete math remediation that CUNY ended the classes entirely, claiming that most students major in areas with limited math requirements.

School choice is another policy option. As documented in a new study, many parents have responded to public schools’ failures by searching for better educational opportunities for their children. Some 40 percent of kindergartners attended elementary schools other than their zoned neighborhood school in the 2016–17 school year. “School choice may indeed give thousands of children better educational opportunities by allowing them to escape low-performing schools in their neighborhoods,” the study’s authors wrote. “But the schools they leave behind face ever-greater challenges as they struggle to serve the city’s neediest children.” Worsening the situation is the increasing concentration of poor families in these neighborhoods. In the last 30 years, the number of metro neighborhoods nationally with more than 30 percent poverty rates has doubled—and so has the number of people living in them.

Grandiose plans to increase students access to middle school algebra and high school calculus will do little to improve the basic skill deficiencies of the majority of black and Latino students entering the CUNY system. A more realistic agenda would focus on improving student skills, increasing school discipline, and engaging parents to develop more student support in the home.

Photo: SDI Productions/iStock

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