Sunday, February 14, 2010

Trimesters and Algebra

New state standards have pushed many districts into a trimester system. (The majority of Washtenaw County districts have switched over. In Ann Arbor, only Skyline has switched.) A key section of the new standards focuses on ensuring that all kids have more math.
According to the new curriculum law:
Students must complete at least Algebra I, Geometry, and Algebra II, or an integrated sequence of this course content that consists of 3 credits, and an additional mathematics credit, such as Trigonometry, Statistics, Pre-calculus, Calculus, Applied Math, Accounting, Business Math, or a retake of Algebra II. Each pupil must successfully complete at least 1 mathematics course during his or her final year of high school enrollment. (Emphasis added.)
Math, you might say, is frequently privileged in schools. It is the driving force in Ann Arbor in middle school scheduling (your math class often determines most of your other classes). Want to see the achievement gap in action? See who is placed in which math classes in eighth grade.

And now it is the driving force in high school as well. Since math is often the subject that students have trouble with, one idea was that you could teach a standard year of math in two trimesters, and if a student was having trouble, they could repeat a class in a third trimester. And--since with trimesters there are 15 classes in the year (3 trimesters x 5 classes) instead of 14 with the semester system (2x7), this wouldn't disadvantage kids who were having trouble with math. At the same time, kids who didn't have trouble with math would get an extra elective. Prior to these standards, many (many!) kids did not take Algebra II.

At least at Skyline, that experiment has been less than successful. So many kids were having difficulty learning the math in two trimesters, in the school's second year they changed the "standard" math option to a three trimester option.

Today in my inbox, I got a link from Education Week that says that the Algebra-For-All Push Is Yielding Poor Results.

This is really a very interesting article, with a summary of a lot of different research studies, and I encourage you to read it (you might need to register at the site).  Some of the salient points:
*Misclassification of kids matters (who goes in which class)
*When you eliminate tracking, the top students don't learn as much
*However, the bottom students seem to learn more
*Simply taking algebra doesn't seem to affect the likelihood of attending college (and that is a very complicated issue--I'm sure there are lots of confounding factors there).

Side note: Is college the desired outcome here? Or learning math?

Obviously, learning math is important, but it's often not clear why, as I discuss here.
It's not just about math, though. I think we also need to ask whether the trimester system works.


  1. Just a note on the 8th grade math comment. My kids were not placed in 8th grade math, they (along with us parents) chose which level to take. One took advanced and the other took the regular which I assume is college prep. They were the right choices. But, now in high school, I see that it is a huge advantage to be in advanced classes. The kids are better behaved, serious about education, and many of the same kids are together in a lot of classes. What should be college prep seem to be a mix of conscientious students, poorly behaved students, low performing students, and disengaged students. It is not a good learning environment and the material is watered down as a result.

  2. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.