No algebra in grade 8? New math education framework alarms some scholars

Written by Amy Ta, produced by Angie Perrin

“[Students] should not be fed the false promise that by not learning certain core content in high school, that you will still have all options open in college,” says Brian Conrad, a math professor at Stanford University. Photo by Shutterstock.

College-bound students usually must take algebra I and II, geometry, trigonometry, maybe some calculus. Now California plans to reshape math instruction — focusing on individual students’ needs rather than requiring them to follow the same track. 

Brian Conrad, who teaches math at Stanford University, explains that the State Board of Education is behind this 1,000-page proposal, which the state green-lit in July, but schools can choose whether they want to follow it. The board has been concerned about California students’ dismal math performance over the past years. The board hires various K-12 teachers and experts in other disciplines to guide districts on how to teach content standards. They write that framework every seven or eight years. 

The board wants instructions to be more engaging and students to learn possible alternative content — and/or not learn certain subjects at particular stages, he says. The belief: This will help all students and hold back no one. 

"But the experience of San Francisco shows that blocking everyone from eighth-grade algebra I does not achieve the so-called equity claims that the people behind it were promising,” Conrad points out. 

He continues, “There are concerns that if you allow eighth-grade algebra I … then kids who don't get identified early on as being on the road towards more advanced math — don't have an opportunity to get there. … The idea is to simply block everyone, and then propose a variety of fantasies for how people can still reach calculus by the end of high school, if they're interested.”

San Francisco has been implementing this model for 10 years, and when they cut the course for eighth graders, many students left the district, went to private schools, or had to workarounds like summer school or compression courses, he explains. 

“It just created a lot more stress on the students. … It just forced a lot of complicated … systems to try to still achieve the same end goal in terms of math knowledge. But the claims that it would improve the demographics and the outcomes was a complete bust.”

In the proposed framework, students should learn data science, particularly instead of algebra II. But it doesn’t give clear standards or a definition for data science, and the most popular courses in this field are light on math, Conrad points out. 

“Even the people who run the data science programs at Stanford, at Berkeley, at various UCs have called this out as a very serious problem. People are being told that they'll be on the track to these really exciting careers … they can become a data scientist. But the people who are getting those secure jobs have the four-year degrees in data science. But that requires learning calculus very early in college or in high school. But if you don't learn algebra II in high school, it's extraordinarily difficult to do this as a four-year college degree.”

Broadly, he raises the question: “At what point in one's education should you have to make an irreversible-fork-in-the-road choice, that you are or not going to allow yourself the option to pursue certain kinds of degrees?” 

In the U.S. system, he points out, people delay that choice as much as possible, perhaps until college, because some kids’ interests may change. 

“It's often felt that we should try to allow kids to keep all options open. You're perfectly correct that somebody could say, ‘I know at the end of 10th grade that I'm never going to go into anything quantitative, so I shouldn't have to take algebra II.’ And that's perfectly fine. And I'm not saying that algebra II has to be a high school graduation requirement. And certainly providing other courses, statistical courses and so on, is a perfectly good thing. And if people want to take those they can. But they should not be fed the false promise that by not learning certain core content in high school, that you will still have all options open in college.”

His other concerns about the proposed new framework: It has inadequate suggestions on how to improve math instruction in elementary schools; and when it comes to K-12 textbooks, publishers face no real pressures to make their materials more interesting to motivate kids to learn.