The language of algebra includes x, y, and z. Yet these variables add up to something more than just another mathematics class. Algebra 1 is an essential stop on the way to higher-level math and science according to research.
What remains unclear, though, is when students should take Algebra 1. While the subject has traditionally been taught in ninth grade, a growing number of districts are moving Algebra 1 instruction to eighth grade.
But pushing Algebra 1 too early increases the risk that underprepared students will fail at the subject, while waiting until later reduces the number of advanced mathematics courses that students can take in high school. And if the Algebra 1 gate swings closed, many students get locked out of advanced study in math and science, limiting their career options in those fields.
EDC’s Bryan Wunar, who has done extensive work with algebra-readiness programs across the country, gives a nuanced answer. “Instead of algebra for all at a specific grade level, it should be access to algebra for everyone who’s ready for algebra,” he says. “That’s a big distinction.”
“When students are ready and prepared for it, Algebra 1 opens up opportunities,” Wunar continues. But, he adds, forcing students through Algebra 1 when they are not ready can be a huge impediment to them taking any higher math courses, thus reducing career options.
Drawing on her work with the Chicago Public Schools, EDC’s Mary Wedow echoes this sentiment. She emphasizes that preparing students for success in algebra is more important than pushing students to take the course as early as possible.
“Conversations about algebra for all at the eighth-grade level can be frustrating,” says Wedow. “So many parents believe that if their child is in eighth-grade algebra, that’s a great thing for the student—but the student might not be ready.”
Yet both Wedow and Wunar agree that curricular opportunities should be available for students who are ready to take Algebra 1 in eighth grade. Says Wunar, “You want to push students to be challenged, and to get them as far along the spectrum of high school math as possible.”
Research is now showing that online courses can be a suitable method of expanding Algebra I access to these students. In a multiyear study, researchers at EDC’s Regional Educational Laboratory Northeast and Islands (REL-NEI) compared two groups of algebra-ready students: one that took an online Algebra 1 course, and one that enrolled in the regular (non-Algebra 1) eighth-grade math class offered by the school.
Not only did the study find that students in the online class scored higher on an algebra assessment than their peers in eighth-grade math, but the students in the online course were also twice as likely to take an advanced math course sequence in high school. Advanced high school math courses such as geometry, Algebra 2, and pre-calculus are essential to preparing students for engineering and scientific fields.
So if online courses can support students who are ready, what can be done to prepare students who are not?
June Mark believes that algebraic thinking can be taught at any age. She co-leads EDC’s Transition to Algebra project, which works in two Massachusetts districts with ninth-grade students who struggle with the demands of Algebra I.
“Readiness for algebra has as much to do with developing algebraic ways of thinking as with content coverage or particular skills,” she says. “Students often don’t approach mathematics with the perspective that it makes sense. They view math as a set of arbitrary rules.” This perception can be a major barrier to any advanced work in the subject.
In Transition to Algebra, students grapple with mental math exercises that foster a common-sense feel for the algebraic properties of arithmetic, and they solve a range of mathematical puzzles that improve their logical reasoning. Through this approach, students grasp that mathematics has a structure—and see that thinking algebraically does not have to be like learning a foreign language.
“We can try to reengage kids in mathematics at any point,” Mark says. “And by focusing on mathematical ways of thinking, and approaching mathematics as a logical arena, we’re hoping that they are able to use these habits of mind to reason about novel problems.”
Originally published on May 3, 2012