Academic journal article Education Next

A Double Dose of Algebra: Intensive Math Instruction Has Long-Term Benefits

Academic journal article Education Next

A Double Dose of Algebra: Intensive Math Instruction Has Long-Term Benefits

Article excerpt

In 2008, president-elect Barack Obama declared that preparing the nation for the 1121st-century economy" required making "math and science education a national priority." He later signed legislation that provided incentives for states to adopt common standards intended to increase curricular rigor in these and other subjects. Encouraging more students to take advanced classes seems laudable, but concerns have arisen about the ability of many students to complete such course work successfully.

Students in urban high schools are of particular concern. Populated predominantly by low-income and minority students, these schools struggle with two related problems. First, many students do not earn passing grades in early courses that are thought to be prerequisites for more-advanced subjects. Second, students are at high risk of failing to earn their high school diplomas at all. In fact, only 65 percent of black and Hispanic students graduate high school, with little evidence that the graduation gap between them and white students has changed in the last few decades. One theory for these low highschool completion rates is that failures in early courses, such as algebra, interfere with subsequent course work, placing students on a path that makes graduation quite difficult.

One increasingly popular approach to improving students' math skills is "algebra for all," which encourages more students to take algebra and at earlier ages. The best study of this approach, using evidence from Charlotte, North Carolina (see "Solving America's Math Problem," features, Winter 2013), shows that pushing students into course work for which they are ill prepared actually harms their subsequent academic achievement. A potentially promising alternative, and one we focus on here, is "double-dose" algebra, in which struggling students are given twice as much instructional time as they would normally receive. The best study of this approach, by Takako Nomi and Elaine Allensworth, examined the short-term impact of such a policy in the Chicago Public Schools (CPS), where double-dose algebra was implemented in 2003. Under that policy, students scoring below the national median on the 8th-grade math exam were required to take two periods of algebra a day during 9th grade instead of one, with the second class providing support and extra practice. Students placed in the extra classes thus received substantially more algebra instruction than other students. Nomi and Allensworth reported no improvement in 9th-grade algebra failure rates as a result of this intervention, a disappointing result for CPS. The time frame of their study did not, however, allow them to explore longer-run outcomes of even greater importance to students, parents, and policymakers.

Our study extends this work to examine the impact of CPS's double-dose algebra policy on such longer-run outcomes as advanced math course work and performance, ACT scores, high-school graduation rates, and college enrollment rates. Using data that track students from 8th grade through college enrollment, we analyze the effect of this innovative policy by comparing the outcomes for students just above and just below the double-dose threshold. These two groups of students are nearly identical in terms of academic skills and other characteristics, but differ in the extent to which they were exposed to this new approach to algebra. Comparing the two groups thus provides unusually rigorous evidence on the policy's impact.

We find positive and substantial longer-run impacts of double-dose algebra on college entrance exam scores, high school graduation rates, and college enrollment rates, suggesting that the policy had significant benefits that were not easily observable in the first couple of years of its existence. The benefits of double-dose algebra were largest for students with decent math skills but below-average reading skills, perhaps because the intervention focused on written expression of mathematical concepts. …

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