Is it an Algebra crisis? Or primary math crisis? (Part 1)

By Evgeny Milyutin posted 12 days ago

Let’s look at the labor demand expected in US by 2030.

McKinsey Global Institute recently published a report about automation in the US and its effect on the job market. It shows that there will be a drop in demand for labor with secondary or less education (due to Artificial Intelligence, robots, and other automation), and a jump in demand for a college-educated workforce.


Therefore, teachers will be expected to continue to make a push for college readiness to fulfill the market demand. However, the college math readiness reported last year was 26% and there is no evidence that it is improving. In 2016, Peggy Carr, acting commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, confirmed: “The decline is real.”

It may look like a problem of high-school education, sometimes referred as the “Algebra Crisis.” If we look at the research, it has roots in early learning. Alan Schoenfeld from University of California, along with Deborah Stipek from Stanford University, analyzed data from Early Childhood Longitudinal Study by National Center for Education Statistics, and concluded that “children who begin school with poor math skills typically do not catch up​.” Children who have low math marks at the start of kindergarten continue to lag behind their better prepared peers until 8th grade.


Not only do students in the lowest quartile remain there, but the gap between them and their peers widens. By 8th grade, they performed at a level their peers had surpassed by grade 5.

George Duncan from Northwestern University has reported it is early math that’s key for later academic achievement (Duncan et al. (2007)). According to the study, the strongest predictors of later achievement are school-entry math readiness, reading, and attention skills. Math is considered the ‘most predictive of subsequent achievement outcomes.​’ Surprisingly, school-entry math skills are as predictive of later reading progress as are school-entry reading skills.

This correlates with another topic which is currently under the scrutiny of researchers, and familiar to many educators. Mindset, ‘a core belief about how they [people] learn’, is a term offered by Carol Dweck. According to her findings, there are two types of mindsets determining, but not limiting, a person's ability for intellectual development. The first one, known as fixed mindset, is formed when a person does not believe he or she can do better. It limits a student and makes stem stagnete. This could be caused by educational trauma or by a negative influence of environment.

The opposite to it is a growth mindset, when healthy self-esteem and confidence implicitly affect educational pathway and helps learners to move forward. A growth mindset can be present in any student, regardless of previous achievements, family status or academic background. ‘When people change their mindsets and start to believe that they can learn to high levels, they change their learning pathways (Blackwell, Trzesniewski, & Dweck, 2007) and achieve at higher levels.’

Stanford professor, Jo Boaler, has been working on growth mindset when it comes to teaching math, to include creating great resources available for the teachers to foster growth mindset in their students. Boaler also reported how wrong messages affect early learners, especially girls. In childhood - as young as 5 years old, without knowing the subjects yet - students are exposed to the wrong messages, such as “We are not really a math family,” or “I was never good at math, ask your dad.” These types of math messages impact student, creating negative, often fixed, mindsets in mathematics learning. These messages begin early in education. Summing up the research, college math readiness is an issue - not only because there is an Algebra crisis, but because there is also a primary math crisis.

Your turn now -- what are your thoughts? ​Where do you see the most critical moments in math learning? ​The comment box is yours!

#math #Elementary



6 days ago

Thanks for sharing your thoughts and personal experience with us on this topic, Charlotte!

Indeed, professional development for teachers is very important -- and it’s great that schools and districts are investing in it, ensuring the elementary classroom experience is a deeper dive into math understanding, and thus preparation for algebra.

In addition to school/district efforts, thanks to the Internet, there are many opportunities right now for PD -- such as this community, Twitter, blogs, webinars, etc. -- and most of it is free!

7 days ago

A few years ago, I sat in a testing room for the CSET, which is California's Multiple Subjects Exam that k-8 teachers must pass. It is the type of exam that if a test-taker fails one part, he or she can come back and take the one section. The room was filled with people who were there only to take one section because they failed it on an earlier attempt. Nearly everyone who was there, for one section, was retaking the math section!

When I opened up the math section, I was shocked that so many people were retaking it. I had taught 4th-6th grade in NJ, concentrating on teaching math. My top 6th grade students could easily pass the math section of the CSET. Here is where one of the biggest problems in k-8 math is found: Teacher Preparation.

Years before, I worked as a Sixth Grade General Studies Teacher in a NJ middle school. It must have been 1992 or 1993 when the district adopted a rigorous textbook that had a number of sixth grade teachers worried. They did not have the background to teach a more rigorous form of grade six math. I was always strong in math--didn't always like it--but, I was usually a top math student. I also was a business major for 2.5 years. So, I was selected to be one of the two sixth grade math/science teachers, not because of my science background but because of my math background. 

Something strange happened when I started teaching math. I actually decided I like it. So, I took a math placement exam at the local community college and did well enough to place into the engineering level Calculus track, something I could have done years before. 

I was moved into my former NJ district's Blue Ribbon School, which had/has an amazing math program (pre-high school). I became an  Elementary Specialist and I worked with talented Math Specialists. The best part is that there was block scheduling so, there were at least three days where we could deeply focus on math content.

Right now, as I read your blog, I want to scream. My son attends an SFUSD high school. This California District does not want students to take Algebra before grade 9. It is ridiculous. My son is allowed to sign up for an online geometry course this summer or he can spend 5 hours a day over the summer taking Geometry so he can be on target for Calculus before he graduates high school--the district does NOT care how any high school course is taken. But, they care about Grade 9 Algebra. It is bizarre. And, it is upsetting to me because I think this is far more a k-7 issue than a high school issue.