Friday, July 12, 2024

Students becoming eighth-graders (and possibly seventh-graders) in the next two academic years can expect an algebra class before reaching high school, although such plans have been derailed in Cambridge twice before. (Photo: Ewan Thomas)

All students will learn algebra before high school, possibly as soon as the next school year, it was determined at Tuesday’s meeting of the School Committee.

It was a matter of several lines of thought converging to a point, as the night’s agenda featured two motions, coincidentally filed at the same, for pushing the math course into all K-8 schools in the district. There was also an assurance from Superintendent Jeffrey Young and Deputy Superintendent Carolyn Turk that the move was already in the works.

“There’s no collusion here, we just came to the same great idea at the same time,” committee member Richard Harding said.

But while the motion by Fred Fantini and Alice Turkel asks that “algebra be taught to all students in every elementary school starting in the 2010-11 school year,” the superintendents preferred the request in a motion by Harding and Patty Nolan that their office explore implementation and “report back on the feasibility.”

And even Harding and Nolan’s request for a report by the end of the school year was ultimately deferred, in a unanimous committee vote combining the motions, to the panel’s Aug. 3 meeting.

“We share the School Committee’s urgency on this and we would like to be partners with you in shaping the process moving ahead rather than being in the position of receiving a vote and having to figure out how to comply,” Young said.

Although a roundtable held by the committee April 13 was cited by many as a sign of math’s importance to the committee and district, it was not what sparked the motions, members said.

“This should have been happening before, with or without the math roundtable,” Harding said. “Kids who are expected to go on to colleges are expected to be prepared particularly in math, and this is part of the foundation. The inconsistency we have in Cambridge public schools compared with schools around us in some ways is an indictment.”

The Kennedy-Longfellow School, which has three math teachers, is the only K-8 school in the district teaching algebra, and that is a pilot program begun this school year. Other schools, committee member Nancy Tauber noted, have fewer students and teachers. To Tauber and others, that raises questions about implementation.

But it also raised anew an issue that has haunted the committee throughout the year as it has pondered solutions for the middle grades, including the creation of a middle school: a Cambridge education can differ radically from one K-8 school to another.

“Algebra is the gateway to high-level science and high-level math, and the fact that in some of our schools you can get them and some you can’t is the issue,” Harding said.

It’s a practice the district must abandon, said Young, who has championed a middle school. In the absence of fast action on it, he is instead enacting a revamp of curriculum to align learning in the middle grades to meet what students are expected to know entering high school.

The motion by Fantini and Turkel noted that the committee ordered algebra twice before, in 1992 and 1998.

In each case, the introduction of academic standards from outside Cambridge superseded the committee’s orders — the Massachusetts Education Reform Act sidelined the algebra effort in the early 1990s, and the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System standardized test did it in later in the decade, Turk said.

Students in the city’s high school, the Cambridge Rindge & Latin School, are offered algebra for two courses, geometry, calculus and trigonometry by the time they graduate. Getting the first algebra course done before high school allows for more flexibility in grades nine through 12, Turk said, which could include freeing up a year for exploring nonmath courses.