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Ishmael Brown Jr. is a stickler for notes when he teaches algebra I to ninth graders at Spring Valley High School in Columbia, South Carolina. After he gives students a problem, he typically walks around and watches how they’re solving it; he wants to see their reasoning with the answer. Not so this year: As of May, only about a sixth of his students were in person and the rest online. 

With so many web tools out there that solve math problems, it’s easy for Brown’s online students to find a shortcut to answers and the calculations that go with them. So he has no idea if they’re learning. 

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Connecting with kids has been a struggle, too. Brown’s virtual students aren’t required to turn on their cameras, so he can’t tell whether they’re paying attention. Few speak up. In person, his classes are fun, and the students engaged: “I relate whatever it is that we’re doing to something closer to real life,” he said. 

The effects are showing up in test scores. In his intermediate algebra class — the second semester of algebra I — 30 percent of his students are passing tests, compared with close to 70 percent in previous years. “I really don’t think that they’re growing,” said Brown, who’s also president of the National Tutoring Association. “I think this is a lost school year for most kids.” 

Similar stories are coming in from all over the country. Educators and school leaders are scrambling to figure out how to regain ground next year in a course that often makes or breaks students’ life chances.

“I’m very worried. I think of math like Legos — you can’t build a house if you don’t have that first foundation.”

Jeffrey Coots, a Kentucky algebra teacher

Students who fail algebra I are far less likely to graduate than others. A 2016 study by the American Institutes for Research noted that about a third of Chicago’s public high school students fail one or both semesters of algebra I. Of those who failed both semesters in 2005-06, only 15 percent graduated in four years. A 2008 study in Los Angeles public schools found that those who didn’t pass algebra by ninth grade were half as likely to graduate as those who did. 

Ishmael Brown Jr. introduces a lesson on quadratic formulas. Few students spoke up with questions and comments during algebra I classes this year, say teachers and students.  Credit: Ishmael Brown Jr.

Later, math is what most often keeps students from graduating from college, experts say. Only half of students who take college algebra score C or higher in the course, a 2015 report by the Mathematical Association of America noted. Math courses are “the most significant barrier to  degree completion in both STEM and non-STEM fields,” the authors concluded. 

Related: Confused by your kid’s math homework? Here’s how it all adds up

That means algebra I is also the class that decides whether students get jobs involving science, technology, engineering or math. “Algebra I is the air you breathe to be in STEM,” said Nathan Levenson, a former CEO of a crane-manufacturing company and later a school superintendent in Massachusetts. 

For many students it’s been a lonely year, and algebra is tougher to learn while peering at a screen, say teachers and researchers. 

“I think this is a lost school year for most kids.”

Ishmael Brown Jr., a South Carolina algebra teacher

School leaders and teachers are puzzling through a tough equation: how to keep students who missed out on a lot of algebra I content moving through grade-level math next year, usually geometry. Teaching experts say that will mean slowing down to fill in knowledge gaps —detouring from lesson plans, adding extra periods for tutoring, and more. Schools will need to put in “quality time this fall understanding what kids know and what they’re able to do” and then building on that, says Michael Steele, a professor of mathematics education at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

At Jackson City School in Kentucky, teacher Jeffrey Coots has had about two-thirds of his algebra I students online all year. Even some of his strongest math students from prior years have struggled to stay motivated working virtually and have gotten behind. He doesn’t know what’s happening at home, and connections are often spotty — the district is located in Breathitt County, one of the nation’s poorest. 

“It’s really hard essentially losing a student who you know has just great things ahead of them,” he said. “I’m very worried. I think of math like Legos — you can’t build a house if you don’t have that first foundation.”

Jeffrey Coots, teaching algebra I from his parents’ home earlier this academic year when all students were online only. “I’ve had to teach in a lot of different places this year,” he says. Credit: Jeffrey Coots

Keeping kids connected is just one problem. Teachers don’t get enough training to begin with  and certainly haven’t been trained to teach math remotely, said Mark Goldstein, vice president of curriculum and instruction at the nonprofit Center for Mathematics and Teaching. So teachers have been learning new software platforms on the go. In a group of 30 students in an online platform, they can’t watch everyone and check their students’ body language as in the classroom, he said. Breakout rooms are even harder to monitor. 

And often teachers haven’t had time to cover anything in depth. Heuvelton Central School in northwestern New York State used a hybrid schedule for middle school and high school most of the year: two groups of students on alternating schedules are in person two days a week each. The other three days they’re on their own to do homework. With only two days a week to present new material, algebra I teacher Eliza Pierce has had to skim — the class isn’t diving into the really hard problems, she said. When her students hit geometry next year in 10th grade, they’re going to be “shellshocked” if they have to move at the same pace as in past years, she said. 

Related: Is it time to stop segregating kids by ability in middle school math?

Students, too, have been struggling with all the new software, said Veronica Tenesaca, a tutor with Saga Education, which matches tutors with traditionally underserved students. She reels off the names of four new apps her students have had to learn for their algebra courses. 

Even students who have done well working virtually don’t love online learning. Zyonne Reid, a 15-year-old at J.P. Taravella High School in Florida, hasn’t wanted to speak up in her large algebra I class that meets on Microsoft Teams. “Since it’s online, teachers don’t notice you’re struggling,” she said. “And you don’t want to take up the other people’s time by asking a question.”

Hafez Elachkar, 14, goes to Dearborn High School in Michigan. He hated math in previous years but likes his algebra I teacher, who relates what the class is learning to real life, and he’s using some of his algebra to help out in his father’s shoe business. But few students participate or ask questions, he said. When they break out into group work, no one talks except him. He’d never trade in-person math for the online version, he said.

Algebra teacher Eliza Pierce reviews polynomial equations with her in-person and remote students in preparation for end-of-year tests at Heuvelton Central School in northwestern New York State. Credit: Jesse Coburn

Urban school districts like his were most likely to be fully online this year. Almost 80 percent of city districts planned to start last fall fully remote, versus 34 percent in the suburbs and 13 percent in rural areas, according to an August 2020 report by the University of Washington’s Center on Reinventing Public Education. 

Organizations that tutor students in low-income districts see achievement indicators flashing red. Peer Power, a Memphis nonprofit that matches tutors with students in eight area public schools, started 16 years ago with a laser focus on algebra I after a local principal noticed that students who failed the course ended up dropping out of high school. 

This year, the group is watching students flounder in algebra despite its help, according to  Chris Xa, vice president of the Peer Power Institute at the University of Memphis, which supports Peer Power’s research, funding and training of tutors. He said that by the third quarter of a normal academic year, 50 to 65 percent of kids matched with tutors are getting A’s and B’s in algebra I. This year it’s only 30 percent. UPchieve, a nonprofit that pairs low-income students with free tutors through an online platform, says students have requested 14 times more tutoring sessions in algebra I or II this year than last year. 

Districts are scrambling to figure out what to do for the students who have gotten behind. “I think that’s the whole problem: What are we going to do?” said Paul Green, superintendent of the Jackson Independent School District. He’s loath to fail students who have lost ground. But he said there’s no way they’ve gotten the skills to move to higher math. One alternative in his state is repeating the class: In April the Kentucky governor signed a law that lets students retake courses from the current academic year in 2021-22. 

It’s not clear that will help — research has shown that having students repeat algebra I doesn’t raise performance. 

 A student practices solving algebra equations. Teachers will need to slow down to fill in algebra I knowledge gaps next school year, say math-teaching experts.  Credit: Sarah Garland for The Hechinger Report

There’s another way, say math teaching experts. Steele, who studies high school policies and practices related to algebra I, is  advising teachers to slow down this fall — a strategy that, confusingly, the U.S. Department of Education and others have labeled “accelerated learning.” It involves schools’ putting extra time into figuring out which concepts kids missed and revisiting those, all the while keeping them at grade-level math. 

Steele points to a task teachers could use in next year’s 10th grade geometry class. Students are asked to fold two standard 8.5-by-11-inch pieces of paper to create two rectangular prisms, one taller and thinner, the other shorter and fatter. They fill each with popcorn and soon learn the prisms hold different amounts. (The exercise is from the book “Taking Action: Implementing Effective Mathematics Teaching Practices in Grades 9-12,” published by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.) 

The students are then asked to use algebraic formulas for determining volume — which they would have covered in middle school math and algebra I — to explain why. Steele likes the problem because it gives teachers the chance to review algebra concepts. A report last June from the Council of the Great City Schools, a coalition of large urban school systems, recommended similar strategies. 

Related: Try again — Why online courses might not be the best way to teach students who are at risk of algebra failure

Mykea Young has used that just-in-time approach with students in her ninth grade algebra I class all year. She teaches at Forest Park High School outside Atlanta, and her students have been online five days a week. One day in February, she launched into an exercise in which students were to graph linear equations. A minute or so in, the lesson foundered — students didn’t remember quadrants, X-axes and Y-axes, concepts that were covered in their middle school math. She dropped her lesson plan, instead pulling up an online graphing tool that let them refresh their skills. “I have to think on my feet,” she said. 

A student works on a pre-algebra problem.  Credit: Sarah Garland for The Hechinger Report

Tonya Clarke, K-12 math coordinator for the Clayton County school district where Forest Park High is located, said having teachers fill knowledge gaps like that quickly, as they arise — while keeping kids at grade-level math — is central to the district’s strategy for getting students back on track next year. 

Levenson has mapped out changes in scheduling and personnel to fill those learning gaps. Now a senior adviser at District Management Group, a consulting firm helping school district leaders, he worked with the Louisiana Department of Education on a plan for this fall that involves keeping students at grade-level instruction by building catch-up classes right into the regular school day. 

If teachers in a regular class period spot kids having trouble creating equations, those students will be grouped into a catch-up period later in the day in which a strong math teacher gives them help with that skill. Those extra periods could also include tutoring. (A study released in March found that students who received a period of “high-dosage tutoring”  — meaning every day or almost every day — learned  two to three times as much math as their peers.) 

That plan will cost money because it likely means hiring highly qualified teachers to deliver the extra catch-up periods, said Levenson. Those dollars are on the way: The federal American Rescue Plan signed into law in March gives states additional millions to reopen schools and requires districts to devote at least 20 percent of what they get to addressing learning losses. 

Slowing down high school math might be just what’s needed now, say some experts. Starting in the early 1990s, schools and parents pushed ever more eighth graders to take algebra I. But studies of district policies requiring eighth grade algebra show they didn’t improve, and often hurt, student achievement in math. 

One goal of that early-algebra trend was to get more kids through calculus and onto a STEM degree track. That’s because in the traditional setup, three yearlong courses are required between algebra I and calculus, so getting to calculus by senior year means finishing algebra I by eighth grade. But the pandemic has accelerated a trend away from that rigid model, said Steele: More schools are allowing kids to mix and match math classes later in high school, like taking algebra II and precalculus in the same year.* 

“Algebra I is the air you breathe to be in STEM.”

Nathan Levenson, former CEO at a crane-manufacturing company

Giving kids extra tools next year could boost grades and confidence. At J.P. Taravella High School in Florida, Reid struggled with polynomial equations in a class several weeks ago, but got help the next day in a Saga tutoring session that is built into her regular school schedule. How does she feel about doing polynomials now? “I don’t feel great about it, but I know I can do it,” she said. 

“Figuring out challenging things makes you feel better,” she added. “It makes you feel invincible.”

This story about algebra was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

*Correction: This story has been corrected to note that more schools are allowing students to take algebra II and precalculus in the same year.

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  1. Don’t ignore those high school students who have not mastered basic arithmetic. They find algebra horridly frustrating and embarrassing; and so, they quit trying. Some of them have quit trying to do math long before they get out of elementary school. We need to do something to help them and encourage them, preferably long before they get to high school, or the lack of arithmetic will kill any hope they have of learning algebra and any hope they have of getting one of those jobs we tell them are worthwhile and honorable. Each one is different and the reasons behind the failures and difficulties are different; so, one solution will not do for all or even many. It is be hard, expensive, and time-consuming, but they are worth it. Let’s not give up on them.

  2. I have been teaching math and STEM a long time and the main big problem continues to be 4th-6th grade math. Students are NOT learning fractions, %’s, and ratio’s. My experience is that all 7th-12th students are 2-3 years behind in math. When they hit Algebra its a disaster. The problems: 1) teachers don’t know math, 2) students are not being ‘exit tested’ for math, 3) students are being pushed on no matter what their math scores are. This applies to reading also. I teach all over the State of Mississippi and this is true everywhere. I can ask some basic questions to see how a student is in math, 1) can they do simple problems in their head without their fingers, 2) can they read a tape measurement. That’s it!!!

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