I attended a small, public middle school where my eighth-grade class had only about 60 students. My father, an engineer, felt concerned that my school didn’t offer sufficient preparation for Algebra I. In response, he took on the role that many privileged parents might: teaching me Algebra I outside of regular school hours. This early exposure laid the foundation for my mathematical journey, which included nine math courses throughout high school. Because of his intervention, I was able to excel in my undergraduate degree as a mathematics major, and eventually, I became an eighth-grade math teacher myself.
While I didn’t teach the ninth grade Algebra I credit available to eighth graders, I was committed to pushing all my students, regardless of their backgrounds, to engage with the challenges of eighth-grade Pre-Algebra content. My mission was to instill in each student the knowledge that they were capable of tackling demanding math content that was to come in high school.
Recently, I learned about a disheartening trend for middle schools: Some schools in the United States were considering removing Algebra from their middle school curricula completely.
Why are schools removing Algebra I?
Amid discussions about equity in education, a disheartening trend has popped up in the United States: the removal of Algebra I from middle school math curricula. Instead, eighth graders who would have taken Algebra I in middle school are now having to wait to take the course in ninth grade.
Places like Massachusetts and California were making this move in the name of equity. These districts were observing that advanced courses tended to be dominated by white and Asian students. This rationale is that schools are trying to “level the playing field of knowledge,” so that students are on equal footing when they reach ninth-grade-level Algebra. However, a closer examination of this approach reveals potential unintended consequences that could actually make existing inequalities worse.
What effect is it having?
There is a glaring oversight that some of these schools haven’t considered: Advantaged students will find ways to learn Algebra I content in eighth grade. Disadvantaged students will have to do without.
In places where this change is taking effect, privileged students have the means to seek out Algebra I through alternative avenues, such as finding online Algebra I courses, hiring tutors, providing transportation to take Algebra I in summer school, or relocating to districts that offer the course. Ironically, in the pursuit of leveling the educational landscape, these schools are inadvertently exacerbating inequities in access. From a surface-level view, removing Algebra I in eighth grade seems like it would promote fairness; everyone would start ninth grade with the same foundational knowledge. However, students with the resources and aptitude for Algebra I will only seek it elsewhere.
I experienced this divide and unequal access firsthand. I benefited from privileged circumstances, like my father’s education and my parents not having a time poverty. My mathematical skills continued to progress, whereas my fellow classmates in our small, rural school faced a different reality.
What are the implications for the future?
The current trend of withdrawing Algebra I access from eighth-grade students threatens to widen the opportunity gap. Privileged students will continue to find avenues to access advanced courses. Others will remain excluded due to time opportunities and financial constraints. This approach threatens to deepen the opportunity gap and hinder efforts to create equitable public schools.
Thankfully, after a lot of community backlash, Cambridge Public Schools are bringing back Algebra I for their eighth-grade students. They plan to integrate more Algebra I units into the eight-grade math course throughout the next few years. This response underscores the importance of recognizing that every student possesses the capability to tackle “challenging” material. Depriving them of this opportunity serves no one’s interests.
Surprisingly, a Texas district did something to address some of their inequities to accessing honors-level content in the eighth grade. The Dallas Independent School District achieved this by transitioning from opt-in to opt-out enrollment forms. As a result, many capable students who might have hesitated to enroll in advanced courses were now participating. Guess what? These students thrived. This experience reinforces a fundamental truth: Students can rise to the challenge. Offering advanced material to all students is a better way to address math inequities, rather than removing it entirely.
While the removal of Algebra I from middle schools may stem from noble intentions, it’s important to remember that equity goes beyond uniformity. Just as the Texas district demonstrated, the power of education lies in fostering supportive environments. Environments where all students are empowered to thrive and showcase their capacity to excel when given the opportunity. After all, what are we doing as educators if we aren’t igniting potential and lighting up futures?