Guest Column: Fulfilling the Dream of the Algebra Project in Cambridge


By Patty Nolan

Cambridge is the birthplace of the Algebra Project, which identified algebra for eighth-graders as a civil rights issue 30 years ago. I strongly support that goal and have championed efforts to achieve that goal in our district. For years, only a few of our eighth-graders passed the algebra test. Despite setting goals to improve on the distressingly low 15 percent pass rate, nothing changed.

A recent column published in the Chronicle suggested that the Accelerated Math Program had led to worse outcomes in math, yet the data shows otherwise. For a decade, Cambridge Public Schools grade eight math students scored somewhat higher than the state in advanced, and far higher warning category, with disparate results for most subgroups. That did not happen with the introduction of separate classes. Quite the opposite: Those scores were part of the rationale for the restructuring. Scores before and after the upper school restructuring are not dramatically different. Most tellingly, during the first two years of the upper schools, district policy prohibited separate classes, which means all test data from 2014 was of students in heterogeneous classes.

When teachers and students complained that that heterogeneity was not working in math, the district allowed separate math classes — a policy change I supported. The change, instituting an Accelerated Math Program with a goal that AMP students would successfully complete algebra, was controversial. “Tracking” was brought up as inherently wrong. The lack of diversity in the AMP was decried, and many wanted to end the program. We should all be concerned, even distressed, when different classes reflect societal divides of race and class. Yet the answer is not to end the AMP but to set clear goals whereby over time, and not decades but years, every student enrolls in the program and succeeds. As my colleague Richard Harding and I consistently stated every year when we pushed for accountability, higher pass rates, more diversity, higher expectations and clearly articulated SMART goals for algebra, only by monitoring and pushing will students thrive.

Addressing educational issues is complex and requires a thoughtful careful analysis of data. With our forceful pushing, and a new superintendent and assistant superintendent in place, this year, for the first time in a decade, significant progress was made. The percent of the graduating class passing jumped from 15 to 23 percent, matching the 2012 pass rate. As impressive, enrollment in the AMP for our seventh-graders includes over half the class. And over half of all racial groups, paid and free lunch, and special education students are enrolled.

Leadership matters. Without the efforts of our top administrators reversing years of resistence and defensiveness and excuses, and School Committee pressure brought by closely monitoring the AMP results, I doubt that these stellar results would have been achieved. I am convinced that students in the eighth grade can and should be taught algebra. I also believe that we need to approach the “how” of delivering that instruction thoughtfully and support teachers. Some teachers don’t believe that all students can learn algebra in eighth grade — that is unacceptable. And the burden is not only on upper school teachers. Why are sixth-graders not ready for preparatory work? Elementary teachers need support ramping up their math instruction. Finally, Cambridge can anticipate that soon the dream of algebra for all eighth-graders — which our suburban counterpart school districts have taken for granted for years — will be realized.

Patty Nolan is a member of the Cambridge School Committee.

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