Algebra: Changing the Equation: Support Programs Decrease Math Anxiety and Help Students Succeed

By Vogel, Carl | District Administration, May 2008 | Go to article overview

Algebra: Changing the Equation: Support Programs Decrease Math Anxiety and Help Students Succeed


Vogel, Carl, District Administration


WHEN U.S. SECRETARY OF EDUcation Margaret Spelling announced in March the final report of the National Mathematics Advisory Panel, created by President Bush two years ago to address concerns that many students lack essential skills to become engineers and scientists, she highlighted the importance of algebra. "The panel's research showed that if students do well in algebra, then they are more likely to succeed in college and be ready for better career opportunities in the global economy of the 21st century, Spellings stated. The panel advised that all school districts provide access to algebra for all prepared students--including more as early as eighth grade.

As most administrators know, algebra opens the door to all high school math, says Cathy Seeley, a senior fellow at the University of Texas at Austin's Charles A. Dana Center, which supports K12 education with a focus on mathematics and science. "It's a basic college entrance requirement, so any student who is even possibly going to do postsecondary education needs to pass to keep their options open," she adds. For many students, Algebra 1 is the first math class that requires abstract thinking and problem solving, skills that are invaluable even if a student never uses algebraic standards like the quadratic equation at work.

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Unfortunately, algebra is also a key part of the panel's focus and recommendations because it derails many students. "For far too many kids, algebra becomes their first mathematics stumbling block," says Francis "Skip" Fennell, a member of the math panel and outgoing president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. "There's a difference between struggling and frustration. Struggle with a subject and it might take a little time, but there's a level of completion and satisfaction. Frustration is when a student flat out feels like he or she can't do it and walks away and doesn't come back."

Districts around the country are trying a mixture of strategies to help those students who have failed algebra and to better prepare others before they even step into an algebra class. For students who have already failed Algebra 1, there are credit recovery programs that allow them to pass the algebra test without having to retake the class. For students who are behind in math prior to taking algebra, bridge programs help ensure that they have the right concepts in hand before Algebra 1 starts. And better teaching and class structure during Algebra 1 help ensure they can succeed once the course has begun. For the next generation of high school students, exposure to elementary and middle school coursework that introduces abstract concepts means that algebra does not have to be such a stumbling block in years to come.

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The Dropout Factor

The consequences of frustration with algebra are clear, q-he panel's report notes that only 23 percent of grade 12 students are at or above the proficient level in mathematics on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NEAP) and that there is a growing demand for remedial math education among students entering four-year colleges and community colleges nationwide.

With the concern over algebra success in American schools comes its relationship to high school dropout rates. Los Angeles Unified School District superintendent Roy Romer has stated that algebra is a trigger for more dropouts than any other subject, and a 2006 study at Florida International University found that students who failed Algebra 1 were four times more likely to drop out of high school than those who passed the course.

The trend now is that more states are requiring algebra in high school: More than 20 states require high school algebra for a diploma and/or hold students accountable for algebraic concepts on high school exit exams, according to the Education Commission of the States. Another nine states have policies that will go into effect with future graduating classes. …

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