“We find positive and substantial longer-run impacts of double-dose algebra on college entrance exam scores, high school graduation rates and college enrollment rates, suggesting that the policy had significant benefits that were not easily observable in the first couple of years of its existence,” wrote the article’s authors.
The Mar. 21, 2013 news release on EurekAlert which includes the preceding quote recounts an extraordinary story about an approach to teaching algebra that was not enthusiastically adopted at first but first some reason administrators and teachers persisted with it. Chelsey Leu’s Mar. 21, 2013 article (which originated the news release) for UChicago (University of Chicago) News (Note: Links have been removed),
Martin Gartzman sat in his dentist’s waiting room last fall when he read a study in Education Next that nearly brought him to tears.
A decade ago, in his former position as chief math and science officer for Chicago Public Schools [CPS], Gartzman spearheaded an attempt to decrease ninth-grade algebra failure rates, an issue he calls “an incredibly vexing problem.” His idea was to provide extra time for struggling students by having them take two consecutive periods of algebra.
In high schools, ninth-grade algebra is typically the class with the highest failure rate. This presents a barrier to graduation, because high schools usually require three to four years of math to graduate.
Students have about a 20 percent chance of passing the next math level if they don’t first pass algebra, Gartzman said, versus 80 percent for those who do pass. The data are clear: If students fail ninth-grade algebra, the likelihood of passing later years of math, and ultimately of graduating, is slim
Gartzman’s work to decrease algebra failure rates at CPS was motivated by a study of Melissa Roderick, the Hermon Dunlap Smith Professor at UChicago’s School of Social Service Administration. The study emphasized the importance of keeping students academically on track in their freshman year to increase the graduation rate.
Some administrators and teachers resisted the new policy. Teachers called these sessions “double-period hell” because they gathered, in one class, the most unmotivated students who had the biggest problems with math.
Principals and counselors sometimes saw the double periods as punishment for the students, depriving them of courses they may have enjoyed taking and replacing them with courses they disliked.
It seemed to Gartzman that double-period students were learning more math, though he had no supporting data. He gauged students’ progress by class grades, not by standardized tests. The CPS educators had no way of fully assessing their double-period idea. All they knew was that failure rates didn’t budge.
Unfortunately, Leu does not explain why the administrators and teachers continued with the program but it’s a good thing they did (Note: Links have been removed),
“Double-dosing had an immediate impact on student performance in algebra, increasing the proportion of students earning at least a B by 9.4 percentage points, or more than 65 percent,” noted the Education Next article. Although ninth-grade algebra passing rates remained mostly unaffected, “The mean GPA across all math courses taken after freshman year increased by 0.14 grade points on a 4.0 scale.”
They also found significantly increased graduation rates. The researchers concluded on an encouraging note: “Although the intervention was not particularly effective for the average affected student, the fact that it improved high school graduation and college enrollment rates for even a subset of low-performing and at-risk students is extraordinarily promising when targeted at the appropriate students.” [emphasis mine]
Gartzman recalled that reading the article “was mind-blowing for me. I had no idea that the researchers were continuing to study these kids.”
The study had followed a set of students from eighth grade through graduation, while Gartzman’s team could only follow them for a year after the program began. The improvements appeared five years after launching double-dose algebra, hiding them from the CPS team, which had focused on short-term student performance. [emphasis mine]
Gartzman stressed the importance of education policy research. “Nomi and Allensworth did some really sophisticated modeling that only researchers could do, that school districts really can’t do. It validates school districts all over the country who had been investing in double-period strategies.”
I’m not sure I understand the numbers very well (maybe I need a double-dose of numbers). The 9.4% increase for students earning a B sounds good but a mean increase of 0.14 in grade points doesn’t sound as impressive. As for the bit about the program being “not particularly effective for the average affected student,” what kind of student is helped by this program? As for the improvements being seen five years after the program launch. does this mean that students in the program showed improvement five years later (in first year university) or that researchers weren’t able to effectively measure any impact in the grade nine classroom until five years after the program began?
Regardless, it seems there is an improvement and having suffered through my share algebra classes, I applaud the educators for finding a way to help some students, if not all.