Does accelerating Algebra in primary schooling help?

I had earlier pointed a paper by Lant Prichett on why most there is so little learning despite spending many years in school. Instead of blaming the students for not making efforts, Pritchett says the fault is with overambitious curriculum. Once curriculum moves ahead of students capability, latter lag behind and the problem gets compounded in each higher class. Students learn less and less and what we have is flat learning.

In a new paper (free version here) by Charles Clotfelter, Helen Ladd, Jacob Vigdor we get precisely the same lessons.

The paper is based on an experiment where attempts were made to accelerate learning of Algebra. Earlier only good students who thought could cope with Algebra took the course and others enrolled over a period of time. This % was increased through rules and the result was a disaster:

In 2002/03, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools in North Carolina initiated a broad program of accelerating entry into algebra coursework. The proportion of moderately-performing students taking algebra in 8th grade increased from half to 85%, then reverted to baseline levels, in the span of just five years.

We use this policy-induced variation to infer the impact of accelerated entry into algebra on student performance in math courses as students progress through high school.

Students affected by the acceleration initiative scored significantly lower on end-of-course tests in Algebra I, and were either significantly less likely or no more likely to pass standard follow-up courses, Geometry and Algebra II, on a college-preparatory timetable.

Although we also find that the district assigned teachers with weaker qualifications to Algebra I classes in the first year of the acceleration, this reduction in teacher quality accounts for only a small portion of the overall effect.

The paper is an answer to a similar attempt being discussed in California:

In 2008, the California State Board of Education voted to require all students to enroll in Algebra by 8th grade.1 This policy initiative, yet to be actually implemented, represents the culmination of a decades-long movement toward offering algebra instruction before the traditional high school years.2 Nationally, the proportion of eighth-grade students enrolled in algebra doubled between 1988 and 2007 (Perie, Moran and Lutkus, 2005; Walston and McCarroll 2010), reaching rates over 50% in three states and the District of Columbia.

Correlation need not imply causation, and it is unclear whether accelerated algebra enrollment yields positive or negative effects (Loveless, 2008). This paper provides a quasi-experimental estimate of the causal impact of accelerating the introduction of algebra coursework. 

What follows is an analysis of the experiment in Charlotte region which shows the acceleration in algebra did not work.

Superb stuff. However, the paper could have been written in a much better manner. The quintiles etc used in the paper could be given interesting names to go with the flow. One has to keep turning the pages backwards to figure what went in this quintile etc.

But overall message is pretty clear:

Algebra is often described as a “gateway” to higher-level mathematics. Because of the largely hierarchical nature of mathematics instruction, however, the gateway label could equally well be applied to a range of pre-algebra courses, geometry, or any other math subject in the hierarchy. Moreover, the strong positive correlation between the timing of Algebra and later outcomes has been incorrectly interpreted as implying that failure of students to take the course before high school adversely affects their subsequent ability to enroll in the higher level math courses needed for college. That interpretation is incorrect because selection problems make it inappropriate to conclude that the correlation reflects a causal relationship. Our empirical evidence, based on a clear policy intervention affecting nearly the entire distribution of students in one of the nation’s largest school districts avoids the selection bias, and shows that early administration of Algebra I – when not preceded by a longer-run strategy to accelerate the math curriculum – is actually harmful for success in math.

This should be applying to all the subjects..

When one reads such papers one can connect with the issues right away…


2 Responses to “Does accelerating Algebra in primary schooling help?”

  1. Prasad Hegde Says:

    extremely interesting article !! even though I couldnt understand the equations , I hope there isn’t “spurious correlation”

    • Amol Agrawal Says:

      I doubt there will be spurious correlations sir..these papers are published via a super peer review system…what could be questionable is the datasets they take and the tools they use..So you may take the same data, apply different tools and come with very different conclusions

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