It’s computer lab day for Angel, and she’s having some difficulty with the assignment. As part of a freshman algebra class at Washington High School in Milwaukee, Angel is working on a program that tests students’ knowledge of how to apply mathematical concepts to replicate an industrial design. She is initially asked to replicate a design with two punched-out circles and a thick median strip, using a square as the base.
She tries, unsuccessfully. “Oh I forgot to rotate it 135 degrees,” she mumbles to herself. She tries again, and suddenly a look of pride washes over her face.
“Hey look, Mr. Taborn, I got it!”
Angel moves on to the next formula, and before long is expected to use six different functions in a specific order to replicate a design. What began as a seemingly simple exercise has quickly turned quite complex. And Angel, along with other freshmen at Washington, is expected to do it.
A young African-American woman, Angel is part of a city-wide effort to “detrack” math and make algebra mandatory for all freshmen. It’s a far cry from the day when many freshmen found themselves stuck in remedial classes doing the same frustrating fraction exercises they had been doing since fourth grade.
Beginning this fall, roughly 5,300 of the 6,000 freshmen in Milwaukee Public Schools are taking algebra. About 300 are taking other advanced math courses such as geometry, and the rest are primarily in exceptional education, according to Vince O’Connor, Mathematics Curriculum Specialist at MPS Central Office. About 90% of the algebra students are in heterogeneous classes, with the remainder in an honors course or program for the “academically talented,” O’Connor said.
Last year, only a third of MPS freshmen were enrolled in algebra. About one-third were taking pre-algebra, which was essentially a remedial course, and the other third were in an even lower class known as applied math. Further, class placement disproportionately affected African-American and Latino students. In the 1991-92 school year, for example, African-Americans accounted for roughly 52% of MPS high schoolers, but only 43.8% of the students in freshmen algebra; comparable figures for Latinos were 10.1% and 6.6%. Whites, in contrast, accounted for roughly 33.2% of MPS freshman and 44.9 % of the students in freshmen algebra.
“Algebra for all,” as the reform is sometimes called, has several goals. But its fundamental purpose is to ensure that those students previously tracked out of algebra, who tended to be low-income students and students of color, are given a chance to succeed educationally. Ultimately, the goal is to have all 9th and 10th graders in college prep math classes, O’Connor said.
“There are an awful lot of kids who get to 10th and 11th grade and doors have already been closed for them,” O’Connor noted, particularly for those who might want to go to college and find they lack the necessary algebra and geometry for admission. “Math has been a critical filter and we are committed to changing that.”
Nationally, high school students who take one year or more of algebra are two to three-and-one-half times more likely to attend college as students who did not take algebra.
Milwaukee’s algebra project is part of a six-year national experiment known as Equity 2000. While focusing on math, Equity 2000 has a broader vision that calls for an end to tracking; implementation of a college preparatory curriculum for all students — with the specific goal of increasing college preparation for student of color; and increased expectations by teachers and guidance counselors for low-income students and students of color.
The most ephemeral of those goals, that of expectations, is perhaps the most important, according to Vinnetta Jones, national director of Equity 2000.
“If I were to pick one variable that is most important [to academic success], it would be expectations and, more specifically, teacher expectations,” Jones told Rethinking Schools.“Expectations become self-fulfilling prophecies.”
Equity 2000 is a six-year project involving a total of about 450,000 students in six cities: Milwaukee; Nashville, Tenn.; Fort Worth, Tex.; Prince George’s County, Md.; Providence, R.I.; and San Jose, Calif. It is a project of The College Board, a non-profit membership organization that includes most of the country’s universities and colleges, and is funded by major foundations such as the Aetna Foundation, the Dewitt Wallace-Reader’s Digest Fund, and the Rockefeller Foundation.
Equity 2000 hopes to use detracked math to eliminate tracking in all subjects. Jones said that this is possible because of the project’s attempt to change teacher expectations in all areas, using math as an example. Further, many students are tracked in their English, science, and social studies classes
based on what math class they are in, Jones said. According to national studies, students in algebra and geometry are nearly always placed in college prep classes across all disciplines.
The Complexities of Detracking
Detracking is one of the most complicated educational reforms, daunting at even a school level. What makes Milwaukee’s algebra project and Equity 2000 particularly interesting is the attempt to institute systemwide reform.
Part of Equity 2000’s philosophy is to get all the necessary players together and to avoid the mistake of top-down reform that is not grounded in day-to-day classroom realities.
“The discussion of whether reform is top down or bottom up misses the point, in my mind,” Jones said. “What we need to change school systems is leadership and support from the top, and planning and carrying it out at all phases.”
Al Taborn, a math teacher at Washington High School who worked in Central Office for several years, echoed that view.
“The classroom teacher needs and wants to have leadership from the top, I’m convinced of that,” he said. “At the same time, the leadership has to be in touch with the classroom teacher, who is the one who really knows what’s going on.”
In Milwaukee, the algebra project has involved a high level of coordination and support at all levels — from the superintendent and school board, to the principals and guidance counselors, to the classroom teachers. It has also involved extensive preparation.
The algebra project was initiated in the 1990-91 school year and the administration of former Superintendent Robert Peterkin. The current superintendent, Howard Fuller, embraced the reform, as did the School Board.
To prepare staff and administrators at the schools, workshops, summer institutes, and mini-institutes have been held for the past three years with hundreds of middle and high school math teachers, guidance counselors and principals. Each summer teacher institute, for example, involved 100 teachers meeting for two weeks; the teachers then had 40 hours of follow-up workshops during the year. Because guidance counselors and principals were also considered key to the project’s success, special institutes and workshops were set up to solicit their input and support.
Special math summer classes were set up for 360 incoming freshmen, two hours a day, four days a week for six weeks. In addition, last spring approximately 100 students took part in special Saturday academies (four hours a week for six weeks). Another 200 students are expected to take part in the Saturday academies this fall, with an additional 400 next spring, according to O’Connor.
Each school is also expected to develop its own safety net for students who may have difficulty making the adjustment to algebra, O’Connor said.
At Washington, algebra teacher Janice Udovich is in charge of developing that safety net as part of her responsibility as coordinator for the school’s algebra program.
The Washington teachers decided that one important change would be to develop a uniform algebra curriculum for the first three weeks so that students would know what to expect during the few first weeks when schedule changes and transferring of classes is common. Further, the initial curriculum was designed to help give the students confidence.
“We know we are getting kids of all different abilities,” she said, “some that like math and some that say, ‘Algebra, no way.’ And we want them to know that yes, they can do this stuff.”
The school also set up a coordination with the Chapter 1 program, and Chapter 1 students have a special algebra support class that meets two-and-a-half times a week.
“These are kids who probably would otherwise be in an applied math or a pre-algebra class and may not feel very confident about their math skills, so we wanted to offer them some extra support,” Udovich said.
Udovich admitted that some algebra teachers were initially resistant to the change, including herself. “Last fall, many of us felt, ‘There’s no way; it’s not going to work.’ But many of us have had to accept the fact that this is going to happen and then the question is, how are we going to deal with it?”
A teacher for 10 years, Udovich says the algebra for ninth graders is a fundamental reform whose significance may be lost on some teachers, parents, students, and community members. At issue is not just the opportunity to go to college, but the issue of challenging students, increasing their self-confidence, and broadening their mathematical abilities.
For too many kids, Taborn noted, all they knew of math was addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. When they failed, they were just given the same tasks over and over, regurgitated in new ways every year until both teachers and students were bored out of their minds. Remedial classes became a self-fulfilling prophecy consuming more and more students.
“If you have classes that are continually geared toward lower and lower expectations,” Taborn said, “you are going to fill them up.”