I once lived in Scarsdale, N.Y., one of the most education-obsessed villages on the planet. During a big parents meeting at the public middle school, I amused myself by raising my hand and asking how they were going to decide who would be accelerated into algebra in eighth grade.
It was an unkind and immature thing to do. As I expected, my question unleashed a wave of anxiety that forced administrators to abandon the night’s agenda and deal with nothing else until we went home. In Scarsdale, as well as many parts of the Washington area, few topics grab more parental attention than middle school accelerated math.
But now, the nation’s biggest school reform, the Common Core State Standards, suggests those families restrain their ambitions and delay algebra until high school.
How’s that going?
In the Washington area, slowly. Districts here seem reluctant to defy parental expectations. Nor are reform advocates explaining their intentions well.
Here is how the Common Core begins its explanation of the eighth-grade math course it offers as an alternative to Algebra I: “Formulating and reasoning about expressions and equations, including modeling an association in bivariate data with a linear equation, and solving linear equations and systems of linear equations.”
I was a good math student. I took calculus during my senior year of high school, a big goal for parents who want their children to take algebra in eighth grade. But I found the Common Core website to be inscrutable. Parents who need a clear reason for restraining math acceleration in middle school are not getting it.
Instead, they listen, fidgeting, as educational leaders such as San Francisco Schools Superintendent Richard Carranza tell them to trust the educators. “This is the Good Housekeeping seal of approval of our teachers,” he told 640 parents at a raucous discussion of Common Core math.
Tom Loveless, a Brookings Institution nonresident senior fellow, says the reduction in eighth-grade algebra appears to have made headway nationally. The portion of eighth-graders in advanced math has declined from 48 percent in 2013 to 43 percent in 2015. But that trend is less evident in the Washington area.
Virginia, not a Common Core state, has no barriers to eighth-grade algebra. Seventy-four percent of Arlington County eighth-graders completed algebra or more in 2015. In Loudoun County, that portion was 80 percent, and in Fauquier County, it was 55 percent.
Suburban Maryland and D.C. schools have adopted the Common Core without, so far, the eighth-grade math change. Mathematically advanced D.C. eighth-graders declined slightly from 41.8 percent in 2013 to 40.3 percent in 2015, but Brian Pick, D.C. schools chief of teaching and learning, said, “for students ready to access higher levels of math, for example eighth-graders taking algebra I or geometry, we ensure that happens.”
Montgomery County schools spokesman Brian Edwards said that the Common Core eighth-grade math course has not been introduced because “we have been rolling up the curriculum over the last few years and this year is the first year that we have implemented the CCSS grade seven math.”
Eighth-grade algebra enrollment declined in Montgomery after the district decided some students were not ready for the harder work. But 64 percent of the district’s eighth-graders completed algebra or more last year. With better Common Core teaching in earlier grades bolstered by more professional development, Edwards said, the number of students ready for eighth-grade algebra should increase.
Private schools aren’t reducing eighth-grade algebra. The private BASIS school that is planned for McLean, with the nation’s most accelerated curriculum, has hired Vern Williams, a legendary algebra teacher, after his long career at Longfellow Middle School in Fairfax County.
Many teachers say they like the Common Core’s deeper content and more logical framework. Some of that will probably survive. But ambitious parents such as the ones I knew in Scarsdale are unlikely to tolerate delaying algebra, no matter what the experts say.