Friday, July 19, 2024

Whether algebra should be taught to Cambridge eighth graders was the focus of a Nov. 28 roundtable discussion held by the School Committee.

Superintendent Victoria Greer summarized the charge for the discussion: “to listen and learn from all of our various partners and stakeholders. We want to be able to broaden the perspectives of the issues in terms of literacy and equity as it relates to moving … Algebra I into eighth grade. We want to begin a conversation about systemic needs and supports to center students and teachers in our planning. We want to raise the floor of math literacy for all of our students in K through 12. And also [address] our long-term plan for professional development and coaching.”

The Massachusetts Department of Education’s Quick Reference Guide: Making Decisions about Secondary Course Sequences includes four pathways through K-12 mathematics to access advanced mathematics. “The first accelerated pathway compresses grades 7, 8 and the high school model Algebra I course standards in two years,” beginning during middle school at the end of Grade 6 and ending with Algebra I in Grade 8.

Committee member José Luis Rojas Villarreal wondered about the feasibility of compressing or accelerating the speed at which math concepts are taught to fit more math standards in each grade level; teachers and math coaches worried that Algebra I in the eighth grade could be harmful to students. Fred Fantini, then a committee member, said compression could upend progress already made. 

While compression is one option, it is certainly not the only. Any effective strategy must ensure mathematical literacy for all students.

By mathematics literacy we mean the ability of students to read, write and reason with the symbol systems of mathematics. Bob Moses started the Algebra Project here in Cambridge at the King Open School in 1982. Through diligent work with the King Open community, the collection of stakeholders was able to raise the floor of mathematics literacy. Following cohorts of King Open students 1991-1997, the program was able to double the number – including Black, brown and poor students – who were prepared to enter advanced mathematics courses at the Cambridge Rindge and Latin high school. 

Today, we should be asking how we can raise the floor for all students so they can participate in advanced math. What we know from the 1990s work at King Open is that continuing to do the same thing was not the answer. Many students – especially Black, brown and poor – were being left out. Moses knew we needed to do something different. And that meant a different approach, a different mindset and a different allocation of resources for teachers and students.

The challenge remains to ensure that, upon graduation from high school, all students are prepared to succeed in advanced mathematics whether in college or career, without remediation. 

The difference between the example of the King Open in the 1990s and the present situation is that we are examining the prospect of raising the floor of K-12 mathematics literacy not at a single school, but for the district. Securing mathematics literacy for all cannot be achieved solely by mandate. How do we bring this approach to scale and raise the floor of math literacy for all our students?

Robin Gottlieb of the Harvard University Mathematics Department shared a description of the mathematical practices at the heart of undergraduate courses. She said mathematical practice should be a process of sense-making, with a focus on reasoning mathematically and problem-solving. Mathematical literacy involves being able to tell a story using mathematics and interpret a story told using math. Further, students’ understanding should be flexible and portable for it to be useful. She noted that the way we teach mathematics often does not promote deep understanding for all students; therefore we need additional support and resources for its teachers and students.

This challenge will require the engagement of and investments in the entire Cambridge school community: students, teachers, math coaches, instructional leads, school and district administrators, parents and community members. Just as the 1990s success at the King Open was based upon discussions among and organizing of the King Open community, the Nov. 28 roundtable needs to be the first of many more dialogues in the Cambridge community if we are to collectively raise the floor of K-12 mathematics literacy for all students in our schools. 

Lynne Godfrey and Ben Moynihan


Lynne Godfrey is a veteran Cambridge teacher and math coach and an Algebra Project professional development specialist. Ben Moynihan is executive director of The Algebra Project.