Supporting Students in Algebra

Josephine Louie has more than 15 years of experience conducting research in education and social science, and spent several years working as a senior researcher for the Regional Educational Laboratory Northeast and Islands. Currently, Louie is studying the effects of EDC’s Transition to Algebra curriculum on students’ competence in algebra and attitudes toward mathematics. In this post, she describes the Transition to Algebra curriculum and shares some preliminary findings from her research.

EDC’s Transition to Algebra (TTA) team believes that all students can make sense of and enjoy algebra. The team, a group of educators and curriculum developers, is piloting a new way to help students gain the knowledge, skills, and confidence to succeed in algebra. As they work with schools, they are finding their approach to algebra support also helps students see that algebra can be serious fun

Led by Paul Goldenberg, June Mark, and Deb Spencer, the team’s work comes at an important time. Nationwide, there is a push to improve students’ mathematics performance and to build a skilled workforce that is competitive internationally. Some state and district policies require all students to achieve basic levels of success in algebra before they finish high school. As research links success in algebra in high school to stronger higher education outcomes and future job earnings, these policies have become more common. As a result, high schools now face large numbers of students at risk of failing algebra and not graduating. Many schools and districts have responded by establishing double-period or additional algebra intervention classes to provide struggling students with extra support. 

Recognizing that teachers may need thoughtful, engaging, and coherent curriculum materials to reach students in these intervention classes, the TTA team has developed a set of student and teacher materials focused on building students’ algebraic habits of mind. The TTA curriculum is the result of a four-year research and development effort funded by the National Science Foundation. Designed for use in a year-long Grade 9 intervention course that students take at the same time they take Algebra 1, the materials have also been used in middle school pre-algebra courses and for summer school.

My role with the TTA project focuses on researching the effects of the TTA curriculum on students’ competence in algebra and attitudes toward mathematics. Over the next year, I will be working with the project team to summarize the results of this research and to share findings. My work has also involved conducting a parallel District Algebra Supports Study (DASS), to investigate the district contexts in which the TTA curriculum might be implemented. Driving this study were the following questions: How are districts across the country currently serving students who need support to succeed in Algebra 1? What challenges do district leaders say they face to serve these students?

To answer these questions, we administered an online survey to over 350 district mathematics and curriculum directors, targeting leaders of the country’s largest school districts, from March through April 2012. The online survey was completed by 235 respondents. We conducted follow-up in-depth phone interviews with ten respondents. We found:

  • Vast majorities of district leader respondents said that their state or district has a high school graduation requirement related to Algebra 1, and their district provides some kind of formal support for students who struggle in algebra.
  • Supports are most commonly provided through algebra intervention classes, double-block algebra periods, tutoring, and computer programs. The support materials that teachers use typically do not come from a single published source but are most frequently “home-made”—from teachers’ existing materials or resources provided by school colleagues or the district.
  • From the perspective of district leaders, students who struggle in Algebra 1 classes need most help with basic mathematical skills and concepts, such as developing stronger number sense and better understandings of fractions and rational numbers. Teachers need help developing a wider range of intervention strategies and time to coordinate support for at-risk students.

In April of this year, June Mark and I will be describing more detailed findings from this study at the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) Annual Meeting Research Presession. Presenting alongside us will be researchers from the University of Pennsylvania and Michigan State University, who will share findings from a similar study of over 1,000 school districts around the country and discuss how they are responding to pressures to implement and support “algebra for all.” We look forward to exploring results and implications from our two studies this spring.