Saturday, June 22, 2024

School Committee members after their swearing-in Jan. 3, 2022. From left are Rachel Weinstein, Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui, Ayesha Wilson, David Weinstein and Fred Fantini. (Photo: Marc Levy)

A return to teaching all Cambridge eighth-graders algebra – the first step to advanced math classes in high school – was debated on three fronts Tuesday. There was a successful motion to hold a roundtable discussion focused on math education and the unveiling of a district plan that adds algebra units to the eighth-grade math curricula over three years, eventually compressing a three-year middle-school math curricula into two years by the 2025-2026 academic year.

A motion to offer Algebra I to eighth-graders beginning in the fall was tabled abruptly.

Teaching Algebra to all eighth-graders has been a district goal for decades, but Cambridge Public Schools has not implemented a standard curricula across its upper schools. Students at schools with strong math programs could test out of Algebra I in the ninth grade and enroll in advanced math classes, while students at schools with less rigorous programs would fall behind. In addition, some students got math instruction outside the classroom, an option not available to all students.

Algebra was removed from middle school math curricula after district officials saw learning losses from the Covid pandemic. While algebra stayed in the eighth-grade curriculum, in practice the teaching of it was mostly phased out, according to The Register Forum, the Cambridge Rindge and Latin School student newspaper that first reported the problem in June.

In conversation among parents in an online forum, there was concern the district was imposing a “dumbed-down curriculum.”

The roundtable that was approved Tuesday is intended to bring together educators, administrators and community partners to discuss offering “compressed” Algebra I classes to upper and high school students, including a “cost vs. benefit analysis.” Based on input from superintendent Victoria Greer, the roundtable was expected in October at the earliest, Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui said.

Curricula from grades 7, 8 and 9 might be compressed into a two-year course in seventh and eighth grades, or eighth-graders could be offered Algebra I material outside of the classroom in addition to regular math class, according to the motion by members Jose Luis Rojas, Caroline Hunter and Ayesha Wilson.

Charter-righting a motion

Discussion of a second motion, directing the district to prepare students for Algebra I this fall, stopped abruptly when member Fred Fantini exercised his charter right, a rule seldom used by committee members that allows a member to halt debate on an issue until the next regular meeting.

The move came toward the end of Tuesday’s 6.5-hour meeting.

This motion by vice chair Rachel Weinstein and members David Weinstein (no relation) and Caroline Hunter directed the district to prepare all students to take Algebra I before ninth grade beginning this fall, and to provide support for students who are performing above grade level in math.

The motion required the district to provide equitable opportunities to all students to complete Algebra I before ninth grade by 2025.

It also included outreach to students and families, particularly to communities of color and multilingual families, professional development for educators, a ban on tracking students by ability level and annual review of the initiative to ensure its effectiveness.

But by the time a vote could have been taken, members were visibly fatigued and were debating if the motion was similar enough to other proposals to be unnecessary.

“How does this motion differ … is there an actual need for this motion?” Wilson asked. “It’s so late I don’t even know who my question is really to.”

Siddiqui murmured that the question about similarities made a “fair point.”

Though David Weinstein replied that he felt there was value in keeping and debating the motion, Fantini interjected with his charter right. “We need to move on,” Fantini said, explaining that the motion remained, as it “just asks for a roundtable. I think that’s fine to vote on.”

Pathway to algebra

Fantini’s exercise of the charter right left the district’s “Pathway to eighth grade Algebra for All” plan, presented by the CPS math department at the meeting, as the only available option. The district made it official when it announced its plan via an open letter to families on Wednesday morning.

According to this plan, Algebra I units will be offered to all eighth-grade students “thoughtfully and at a steady pace” over the next three years, in response to “strong interest in this issue, particularly over the last several weeks,” according to the letter signed by Greer and Siddiqui.

The district plans to shift the algebra curricula taught in ninth grade into eighth grade, and to move the current eighth-grade math units into seventh grade over three years.

Per the letter, the math department developed the plan to compress the middle-school math curricula in collaboration with educators and community partners during the spring, completing it in June with “the expectation that it would be shared with the school community before the upcoming school year.”

The committee plans to use the time to discuss “how it might want to change current policies that affect the teaching of mathematics to better challenge all students across all grades.”

The community partners include the Algebra Project, Math Talk, the Young People’s Project, the Calculus Project, the Cambridge STEAM Initiative and Math Circle.

They noted that the district’s pre-pandemic move to math classes in middle school that had a wider variety of student skill levels increased the number of students who tested out of Algebra I and enrolled in geometry in ninth grade.

In March the district announced that all incoming ninth-grade students would be placed in either yearlong algebra classes or a one-semester honors algebra course. They could submit grades from non-CPS math classes and request placement in advanced math classes, but placement in an advanced math class was not automatic. The March letter said its math placement team “will not be recommending that any scholars place out of Algebra I … because Algebra I is not comprehensively taught in our upper schools.”