A double dose of algebra improves math and verbal skills as well as college enrollment

Doubling up on algebra classes in high schools has big payoffs, according to a new study.

Doubling up on algebra classes in high schools has big payoffs, according to a new study.

Interesting study out of Texas A&M on the impact of increased algebra exposure in high school:

When students’ time learning algebra is doubled, both their math and verbal skills improve and their rates of college enrollment increase, reveals a study conducted in part by a Texas A&M University researcher.

Kalena Cortes is an assistant professor at the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M, and along with Joshua Goodman, assistant professor of public policy at Harvard University, and Takako Nomi, an assistant professor at Saint Louis University, studied the “double dose algebra” policy at Chicago Public Schools, implemented in 2003. The study, funded by the Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education, “Doubling Up: Intensive Math Instruction and Educational Attainment,” will be published in the winter 2013 edition of the Education Next journal.

“Double dose algebra is for students who scored below the national median on the 8th grade math exam,” explains Cortes, who specializes in the economics of education and economic demography. “These were inner city schools that had mostly low-income and minority students. Once in the 9th grade, these students who were struggling would take two different algebra classes, so instead of 45 minutes of algebra each day, they would have 90 minutes.”

Cortes says she and her colleagues followed the long-term effects of the policy on students’ progress through high school and were surprised to find that students who doubled up on algebra showed improvement not only in math, but also in reading and writing.

“And we said, why is this?” Cortes recalls. “So we looked at how the classes were being taught. The first algebra class is a typical lecture-style class, but the second class is designed to be more interactive. The teachers would break the students up into groups and have them discuss problems and write on the board. So they were learning math, but they were also learning how to read and write in the context of algebra.”

In addition to improved math and reading performance, Cortes says the students who took double algebra were more likely to graduate from high school and enroll in college. “We tracked students that were just above and just below the double dose threshold,” she explains. “The students were similar in terms of academic skills and other characteristics; the difference was that some students took double dose algebra and some didn’t. We found that the students in double dose were more likely to graduate from high school, score higher on their ACT exam and enroll in a two-year college.”

Cortes says the students who benefited most from the double dose policy were students that tested poorly in both math and reading. “There was such a high failure rate prior to this policy,” she stresses. “Half the kids were failing 9th grade algebra, so when you see these long-running effects, it’s pretty amazing.”

She adds that this year, she and her colleagues hope to present their findings to the Chicago Public School District. “We will come there with very favorable results in hand showing that these kids are going to college,” she says.

–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog

35 comments Add your comment

Big Mama

January 31st, 2013
5:04 pm

Wow. Increase instructional time and they score better on tests? Who would have thought it possible? Maybe we should put more focus on the basics (especially in the early years) and less on the “fluff” if we want to see an increase in learning.

linda

January 31st, 2013
5:15 pm

Big Mama, what do you mean by “fluff?” And this program would NOT be appropriate for kids who are not struggling. Let them have the “fluff.” However, if this works for one group then there is no reason not to do it; there is nothing to discuss if something is working. But this is sort of news that scares me because school supers may jump the gun and implement across the board, which is not fair to those who don’t need it, and who in fact need the fluff to avoid hating school. Again, one size does not fit all.

indigo

January 31st, 2013
5:33 pm

When it comes to academic subjects, most students struggle with math. This is because, percentage wise, only a small number of people are endowed with excellent inate math apptitude.

You can double or triple the “dose” of algebra and it won’t make the slightest difference in the number of those with excellent math apptitude and those without.

I suspect math teachers are involved in this. Like so many other people, they think that if they love something and can do well in it, so can everyone else.

It does not work that way.

MA

January 31st, 2013
5:35 pm

I did not take Algebra in school and I turned out just fine. I have a good job(don’t make much money – but love my schedule). I only need to know how to add and subtract.

Scott

January 31st, 2013
5:50 pm

@indigo “excellent inate math apptitude (sp)” is not the issue… it is math literacy that is so important to college and work success. I work with a variety of students and know that anyone can learn algebra. However, unlike some other subjects, you cannot “fake” understanding by memorizing a study guide. The knowledge must be applied to find the answer to the problems and requires the use of high-level math skills and communication skills. In light of these skills the study results are quite logical. You claim “It does not work this way” but the facts presented here (as well as my personal experience) say otherwise.

reality check

January 31st, 2013
6:05 pm

In my view math is the subject most dependent on teaching skill as opposed to aptitude.

I believe the study results.

Relatively few people use math in their jobs, but it is still important.

indigo

January 31st, 2013
6:15 pm

Scott – 5:50 “anyone can learn algebra”

That is disingenuous, to say the least.

It is not a question of learning algebra.

It is a question of HOW WELL you can learn it and how much apptitude you have for the subject.

For example, most car drivers could go to Atlanta Raceway and, with a little instruction, drive a race car around the track.

The question would be, how WELL would they ever be able to drive race cars?

agent

January 31st, 2013
6:42 pm

Indigo,

Bad analogy. You don’t need hand-eye coordination to solve algebra problems. BTW, let’s keep making excuses for why our little ones can’t learn math while the rest of the world eats our lunch. Because you know, those asian kids have a math gene.

A Teacher, 2

January 31st, 2013
6:48 pm

Great, we take kids who hate math and give them double! Wow! Sorry to be cynical, but sometimes we need to actually look at the practicalities of the matter. Instead, why don’t we do something about the fact that kids are bascially told from birth it is okay to not be able to do math, because “nobody ever gets or even uses math.” THAT is your problem!!

By the way, I have taught Math for over 33 years.

Melissa

January 31st, 2013
7:26 pm

MA – With all due respect we absolutely have to redouble our efforts in the area of math education. Math is the roadblock to many students continuing harder subjects, such as physics and computer science. Math will keep our bright kids out of excellent schools.

In the end, it is a great waste of a human being to say that just because the minimum worked for you that somehow that’s good enough for other people. I worked hard through Calculus in College and I would recommend it for everyone (but realize that the reality is Algebra should be the minimum). I also have a job that I enjoy, with a great schedule and my pay is good and will only get better.

Go Math!

Melissa

January 31st, 2013
7:31 pm

agent is absolutely correct and indigo I must respectfully disagree with you. At its very core this study shows that more instruction/application means greater mastery of ANY subject. Math quite frankly is the easiest educational fix. Math should be taught in a logical manner with clear instruction and LOTS of practice (read – HOMEWORK). You cannot do math unless you have plenty of practice and our schools are not giving homework, period. That is the fundamental problem. If you want to learn algebra, you need to have good instruction and work many, many problems.

Sandy Springs Parent

January 31st, 2013
9:40 pm

The problem is the Georgia Education schools are graduation teachers for elementary education that don’t love Math. When you go to 5th grade open house and the teacher says to the parents that she hats Math and isn’t good at Math you want to go running I want my child to have an educated teacher. How can any teacher not pass at least 12th grade math, let alone 5th.

Big Mama

January 31st, 2013
10:00 pm

Linda- you are right, I should have done a better job of defining “fluff”. Schools need to take out the social element (pep rallies, dances that cut into school time), unnecessary classes like psychology (they can study that in college), and the “you’re good, I’m good, we’re all good” classes” (I think they called them ombudsmen once upon a time). And stop cutting into the school day with promos for the latest PTA sale. Then double down on the basics of reading, writing, etc. I’ve never understood why Georgians accept the inadequate school preparation provided by our state. Why are other states teaching in kindergarten the same math we teach in 2nd grade? How can our students ever succeed in higher math or science if they don’t have a firm foundation?

Home-tutoring parent

February 1st, 2013
12:34 am

Linda, I agree with you. “Fluff” is interesting. I agree with Alfie Kohn, except he hasn’t taken his ideas (actually other people’s ideas) to the rational conclusion. In home-education, we provided our kids with arts supplies and musical instruments. We hired teachers, sent our kids to classes, o our kids could learn things we didn’t know. It was Oh My Gosh.

We had so much fun “home-schooling”. It was a blast. Our kids got into, and really loved their colleges. One of our kids said, “My classmates are way smarter than I am.”

“Are you enjoying things? If you’re not, there are other places.”

“I like it.”

After college, he went to a master’s program. He met a guy who was rebuilding a crappy old sailboat. Now he’s rebuilding his own crappy old sailboat.

He married this girl who wants to steal her parents not-crappy million-dollar sailboat to circumnavigate the globe.

My advisement: “Your PILS want thiis, actually. Your wife woudn’t suggest this if she didn’t know this But you know how to fix their boat when it breaks down, right? Middle Atlantic, middle Pacific, middle Indian Ocean, you don’t want to die out there, if you don’t have to. This is why your wife has led you to fix up crappy boats. She’s brilliant. She selected a guy who can do this kind of stuff. “We’re circumnavigating the globe, I need a guy who can keep the boat running.”

Home-education, we had a lot of fun. Way off the charts fun. When studying wasn’t fun, we switched gears.Studying is a grind. Let’s ski the “Pow” in British Columbia, let’s ski “out of bounds”, let’s drive down to Baja and meet up with gigantic whales, let’s go to Hawaii and boogie board.We had a blast.

Or older home-educated son is in Africa right now-, it’s his second trip, age 29.. He’s having a blast.

I lived in Fiji with black people. Not giving that one up. It was WOW! great Fantastic, actually.

Home-tutoring parent

February 1st, 2013
1:34 am

I remember teaching a “C swtudent” real mathematics. Wow, he was so smart.

But then he went to a dumbo teacher. “24 / 0″ = what? It equals infinity.” Stupido. Two real numbers subjected to a real-number operation don’t equal aan imagined non-real-number.

This teacher was really stupid. He gave tests from publishers. He thought “honors math tests” were more publishers’ questions for “regular courses”than they gave. ?He refused to let students take their graded-tests home to study and self-correct wrong answers.

You have bad teachers. I mean really stupid teachers. Did your chid’s teacher graduate magna cum laude from the University of Georgia,. or if teaching math or science, magna cum laude from Georgia Tech? You people are not that bright.

MisterRog

February 1st, 2013
4:14 am

So “A double dose of algebra improves math and verbal skills”?

So might a double dose of Mechanical Drawing and Computer-Aided Design courses.
So might a double dose of robotics.
So might a double dose of electronics.

Perhaps we should finally consider that not everyone learns the same way and that many students (myself included) learn best when concepts are presented in a useful manner.

Even the so-called “college prep” students can benefit from such hand-ons, real-world courses. I know scores of student I’ve taught over my 30 year career have communicated to me what they learned in my courses helped them in their college and career.

AlreadySheared

February 1st, 2013
8:11 am

I suspect that half of the double dose consists of large amounts of guided practice.

Math is a subject that students have to spend time working at and practicing to master – I suspect that our math scores would shoot up dramatically if, for some reason, every single high school student in America started doing 20 minutes of math homework on every school night.

Really amazed

February 1st, 2013
9:41 am

See what happens when teachers can actually teach their subject!!!!!!! Teaching and learning actually happen. Now if only the DOE allowed for TRUE teaching to take place!

Solutions

February 1st, 2013
10:06 am

Concentrate on the three R’s, reading, writing, and arithmetic until they are mastered, and only then dilute the school day with fluff. Yes, under the banner of “arithmetic” I include algebra, plain geometry, solid geometry, and trigonometry. Pre-calculus, calculus, and statistics should also be offered to those interested before such fluff as Georgia history, music, art, band and other politically motivated subjects. If a child learns to read well, they are more than capable of self educating in the soft sciences and the arts. Writing skills should be a part of every class, you don’t know the subject unless you can write an intelligent page about the subject.

GT Alumna

February 1st, 2013
10:26 am

@ Maureen,
Do you know if this was *just* Algebra, or the integrated mess Georgia instituted and is still doing (to some extent, although the name has been changed)?

Maureen Downey

February 1st, 2013
10:30 am

@GT. I believe this study was algebra in the old sense of the class.
Maureen

AlreadySheared

February 1st, 2013
11:10 am

p.s. Math skills are life skills – “I don’t need no math for my job” is no reason to remain innumerate.

Poor math skills correlate with foreclosure:
http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/13/realestate/13mort.html?_r=0

Pride and Joy

February 1st, 2013
6:16 pm

“but the second class is designed to be more interactive. The teachers would break the students up into groups and have them discuss problems and write on the board.”
Exactly.
This is what needs to be done in EVERY classroom instead of teachers photocopying a workbook page, passing it out and sitting down.
This “new” way is exactly the way I learned the metric system when I was a wee one. We used water and measuring cups and pop bottles. Cheap “manipulatives” that weren’t purchases at School box. We had a teacher who could actually teach.

RAMZAD

February 1st, 2013
6:40 pm

Algebra is the only subject that can prove if you are truly thinking. It gets easier after algebra.

I love teaching. I hate what it is becoming...

February 2nd, 2013
9:10 am

I lived in Fiji with black people. Not giving that one up. It was WOW! great Fantastic, actually.

No words.

Pride and Joy

February 2nd, 2013
9:25 pm

MA, I have an issue with you making “not much money.” When you decide to learn very little and make very little money…you don’t pay enough taxes yet..you and your children certainly USE the taxes.
If you make “not much money” you are being a parasite on the rest of us. …and that sure doesn’t make the rest of us happy.

AlreadySheared

February 3rd, 2013
8:27 pm

P&J,
I know one ought not feed trolls, but shame on you for berating someone who makes an honest living for not meeting your standards.

It must be hard to live in a world where the decisions of millions (billions?) of people with no connection to you can cause you unhappiness.

[...] When students’ time learning algebra is doubled, both their math and verbal skills improve and their rates of college enrollment increase, reveals a study conducted in part by a Texas A&M University researcher.  [...]

Kathy Heller

February 4th, 2013
1:29 pm

WE have had a Math Matters class for 5 years…where kids are doubled in math…they are front loaded on needed skills and get a lot of practice on skills learned in Algebra. It has been extremely successful…on the state test the results are substantive. It has opened up Algebra to kids who would have previously been in a slower or lower track.

math teacher

February 4th, 2013
2:24 pm

to home tutoring parent – 24/0 does not equal infinity it is undefined. And yes it is a non-real number. You might want to check your math facts before you call someone “stupido”. The rationale saying that 24 and 0 are two real numbers then anything that you do with them makes it a real number. Then you are also saying that the square root of a negative number is also a real number!!!!! which it is not.

Mrs T

February 4th, 2013
3:18 pm

The success of this method is due to two things.. First, the increased instructional time allows students to absorb the content at a slower rate, individual concept by individual concept. Second, and most important, is the change in instructional strategies. Allowing students to work in groups using clearly defined activities provides a greater amount of student engagement, which leads to improved understanding. To learn about one set of strategies that promote this type of learning, check out Kagan structures. (And, no, I do not work for Kagan.)

In response to Indigo, who commented on the lack of an inate ability in maht, I would ask the following: why, in our society, is it considered acceptable to “not do” math? In his book, “Innumeracy,” John Allen Paulos described people going out to eat in a restaurant. He said,few people in our society would admit to being unable to read a menu. They would use some strategy such as asking others what they were ordering to cover up their inability to read. However, when the check arrived at the table, they would freely admit they can’t do math, and they would suggest the math teacher in the group should figure out who owes what. Why is it NOT okay to be unable to read, but okay to be unable to do math? All of us, in every walk of life, need to do basic math. If teaching for a different amount of time and using different strategies leads to a clearer understanding not only of math, but also of English, we should applaud the change, not denigrate it.

Mike from the coast

February 4th, 2013
5:48 pm

As a math teacher for many years. Algebra is the foundation. It needs to be taught as a year round course, whether in block schedule or not. Most students WILL get it. If you can get algebra you can easily pass the graduation test. Without it, you will never master higher level math, physics, or any higher level course. Algebra is the building block.

Robin Marcus

February 4th, 2013
9:23 pm

I think the following is the most interesting piece of the article: Cortes says she and her colleagues followed the long-term effects of the policy on students’ progress through high school and were surprised to find that students who doubled up on algebra showed improvement not only in math, but also in reading and writing. “And we said, why is this?” Cortes recalls. “So we looked at how the classes were being taught. The first algebra class is a typical lecture-style class, but the second class is designed to be more interactive. The teachers would break the students up into groups and have them discuss problems and write on the board. So they were learning math, but they were also learning how to read and write in the context of algebra.”

It’s interesting that they conclude that it’s the double time that’s responsible for the gains, but they didn’t compare against replacing the typical lecture-style algebra class with the more interactive one, nor against a double dose of the more interactive class, nor against a double dose of algebra lecture. There’s other research that would suggest that both the additional time AND the focus on reading and writing in the context of algebra are factors in the success of this program. Having students work in groups, discuss problems, share their thinking in writing, etc doesn’t just explain their improvement on verbal measures; it’s also likely a big part of the explanation for their gains in algebra.

It’s a powerful combination – often times teachers cite lack of time as a reason why they don’t take the time to engage in these more “interactive” strategies. For students who enter high school significantly behind, I don’t think a semester block is adequate for their first mathematics course. But the time alone isn’t the full answer – it’s what you do with that extra time… They would probably find they didn’t need 90 minutes a day to achieve these results if they rethought devoting 45 minutes every day to the typical lecture approach…

Devi Mattai

February 4th, 2013
11:31 pm

For the past few years,all the students in our school receive about 90 minutes of math each day, and I have not seen the difference in test scores. I personally believe that in order to see gains we have to implement a well thought out program , not just teaching the same material in a longer amount of time. Districts need to invest in other forms of intervention . I would really love to hear just how you implemented yours and what materials and /or teaching methods were used.

[...] Interesting study out of Texas A&M on the impact of increased algebra exposure in high school: When students’ time learning algebra is doubled, both  [...]