Quadratics, logarithms, asymptotes, imaginary numbers… Algebra II concepts can seem like a foreign language that have no relation to real life. After teaching math classes ranging from 8th grade General Math to College Algebra and Calculus, I can say that Algebra II is one of the most difficult courses that the typical bright, motivated teenager takes in high school. Should all average to above average students take Algebra II? Yes, most definitely. Should all students be required to take Algebra II? I’m not so sure about that. Let’s slow down and think about the notion.
In recent years 20 states and the District of Columbia have moved to raise graduation requirements to include Algebra II. The effort has been led in large party by Achieve, a group organized by governors and business leaders and funded by corporations and their foundations, to improve the skills of the workforce. But exactly how to raise the education levels of the U.S. workforce is a matter of debate. And why is Algebra II singled out as essential?
Proponents say that of all classes offered in high school, Algebra II is the leading predictor of college and work success. That claim is due in large part to a study conducted by Anthony Carnevale and Alice Desrochers, then both at the Educational Testing Service (ETS). They used a data set that followed a group of students from 1988 to 2000, from eighth grade to a time when most were working. The study showed that of those who held top-tier jobs, 84 percent had taken Algebra II or a higher math class. Only 50 percent in the bottom tier had taken Algebra II.
The study showed a strong correlation between students taking Algebra II and subsequent career success, but it certainly did not predict success statistically. Possibly smart, motivated students take Algebra II. Among the skeptics is Carnevale himself, one of the researchers who reported the link between Algebra II and good jobs. “The causal relationship is very, very weak,” he said. “Most people don’t use Algebra II in college, let alone in real life. The state governments need to be careful with this.” The danger, he said, is leaving some students behind by “getting locked into a one-size-fits-all curriculum.”
Achieve and other educational groups have viewed Algebra II as a fundamental component of higher academic standards. Other independent studies seem to back them up. One conducted by U.S. Department of Education researcher Clifford Adelman found that students who took Algebra II and at least one more math course exhibited “momentum” toward receiving a bachelor’s degree. “There was a fair amount of judgment that went into this,” said Michael Cohen, president of Achieve and a former assistant secretary of education in the Clinton administration.
Research is clear that setting higher expectations for students results in greater academic achievement. In other words, if you raise the bar, students will for the most part rise to the occasion and perform better than even they might have expected. Those of us in the trenches of education know that to be true. But I have three concerns with the current move to require Algebra II of all students.
1. Requiring Algebra II on a high school transcript doesn’t mean that all students have mastered Algebra II concepts at the same level. To meet state requirements, many schools offer Algebra IA and Algebra IIA, or some other creative use of semantics. They are in effect teaching Algebra I concepts over a period of two years for students who struggle with Algebra II. I personally take no issue with “jumping through the hoops” to meet state guidelines, as long as the coursework required of all students is rigorous and does not follow a low-level general math track.
2. Not all students are college bound, nor should they be. Yes, let’s raise the bar. But at the same time let’s allow common sense to remain in place. Consider Britney, a 16-yr. old Junior in your high school who becomes pregnant. She is ready to drop out of school, but with intervention from several caring staff members she completes school and attends beautician school on a Pell grant. She now works at a local shop, making a decent salary and providing for herself and her child. Does she need Algebra II? No. In fact, a state mandated test that requires her to exhibit those skills just might be the stumbling block that leads her to drop out. Policy-makers, please allow local educators to differentiate and work with students according to their unique needs.
3. We need to ensure that along with increased expectations for young people we have every math classroom filled with the most competent and compassionate teachers. Support must come in the form of increased compensation to attract the brightest to our profession and quality teacher education programs to prepare them for the increasingly complex task of educating young people.