Sunday, June 16, 2024

I have written to the School Committee and superintendent with a plea, and I hope all in Cambridge stand with me. The issue: The district should establish a clear commitment that within three years every third grader in Cambridge Public Schools will read and write at grade level, and that every eighth-grader will successfully pass a full Algebra I equivalent and be prepared to start high school math with geometry or Algebra II. No exceptions.

I refuse to believe that our district students are less capable than students at Brookline Public Schools, at Cambridge Friends, Shady Hill or the Fayerweather Street School – all of which also experienced the pandemic yet still assume eighth-graders can and will complete Algebra I before high school. Data confirm that students from outside our school district who enter Cambridge Rindge and Latin School (20 percent to 30 percent of the ninth-grade class) have a far higher percent of students who start CRLS math with geometry or Algebra II.

Algebra by eighth grade was voted upon many times over the past 30 years. And unless I am mistaken, the School Committee has not rescinded its many votes that algebra for every eighth-grader is a goal. Just one example from district written communications in 2013 on math: “To ensure all students have the opportunity to complete Algebra I by the end of eighth grade, we have added new options for students.” There are many other times CPS has articulated and promised to deliver. Why the turnaround?

The district made progress in fits and starts. The creation of middle schools was partly to address disparities among schools – in 2010, students passing Algebra ranged from zero percent to 43 percent depending on which K-8 school they attended. Sadly, six years later, the five new middle schools saw a similar range, with from 5 percent to 35 percent passing. But in 2013, only 35 district students passed the Algebra I test; in 2019, it was 104. We could have continued that trajectory.

The Accelerated Math Program started to deliver better outcomes, but saw disproportionality in groupings. To address the inequitable classes, the decision was made to end the AMP and instead provide the opportunity to all grade-eight students.

The decision was not to end the opportunity for everyone, yet that is what the district has done this year.

That is why many of us, myself included, are stupefied and angry about the reversal of that decision and promise. Now students must take classes on their own or over the summer in a district program if they want to enter CRLS math in geometry or Algebra II, and is discouraged instead of encouraged.

This is a shocking, backsliding change from the past that will exacerbate inequities

No matter what excuses are made, it is difficult to accept that district kids who do not have confidence in their ability or family support or knowledge to pursue algebra outside of class will be at CRLS with students from other schools who did have that opportunity. Equity? Hardly.

The goal of algebra for all is precisely the focus of Bob and Janet Moses’ work: Every single student regardless of background will successfully complete Algebra I in eighth grade, if not before, giving students the confidence that they can do it and providing them with the basis for this critical skill helpful in whatever life path is chosen. The Moseses founded The Algebra Project specifically since all kids, including their own Black children, deserved this opportunity, and the mentality of the district was not delivering. Math is a civil rights issue; it prepares students for more opportunities later in life. It is not about getting to calculus, but about being prepared and able to take calculus and any advanced science, technology, engineering and math courses and fields if the student wants.

Not providing every student with the support and encouragement to do this level of math continues a mentality that has plagued the district for far too long, holding back students, especially students of color and girls and others. While it is important to understand what the district and teachers think and ensure they have the support to deliver, we must start with what is best for students and center the needs of kids, not adults.

One rationale for not establishing a clear path for all eighth graders is that it is no big deal – a Rindge student can take AP Statistics or AP Calculus by starting high school in Algebra I. That requires doubling up on math, though, which means less ability to take the fabulous classes the high school offers. The point of algebra in middle school is to excite students, to live a growth mindset and to walk the talk of equity.

Algebra I in eighth grade is an important gatekeeper that affects students’ life trajectories and can be provided to all students with proper support. We should send the message to our middle-school scholars that they can do this math – and encourage them, not dissuade them. If students enter CRLS without a good foundation in math, shame on us. It is a sign that we need to improve instruction, not limit options for students.

If you agree that we can achieve this goal, write to the district and demand it. As a city councillor, I am on record that I cannot vote for a school budget that does not explicitly include a plan for every eighth-grader to successfully complete a full Algebra I course and every third-grader to read and write.

Patty Nolan is a Cambridge city councillor. Before that she was elected to seven terms on on the School Committee.