National Council of Teachers of Mathematics 2012 Research Presession

Please note: The NCTM conference program is subject to change.

106- Ready or Not? The Problem of Eighth-Grade Algebra

Wednesday, April 25, 2012: 1:00 PM-2:30 PM
Franklin Hall 3 (Philadelphia Marriott Downtown)
Ready or Not?  The Problem and Promises of Eighth Grade Algebra

Abstract and Timeline

This research symposium focuses on the debate about how to best prepare students to study algebra in the eighth grade.  Policymakers have long regarded algebra as critical to personal, professional, and economic advancement.  Taylor (1990, see also Lawson, 1990; McKnight, Crosswhite J., Dossey, Kifer, Swofford Travers & Cooney, 1987; Oakes, 1984; Ravitch, 2000; Sells, 1978;) considered algebra “the fork in the road where one direction leads to opportunity and the other to limited options for further education and promising careers. None of the other disciplines has a similar decision point” (p. 45).  Moses and Cobb (2001) further asserted that algebra is more than the key to advanced study and understanding of technology, because “in today’s world, economic access and full citizenship depend crucially on math and science literacy” (p.5).  Traditionally reserved for 9th grade, in recent years algebra has been taught in 8th grade, with mixed success and much controversy, as in the high-profile California 8th grade algebra mandate.  This symposium centers on the question of whether most students can and should study algebra in eighth grade.

The rhetoric surrounding mathematics literacy in the US has caused local school districts to redefine their mathematics curricula in order to create equitable opportunities for all students.  The failure of the ninth grade “algebra for all” initiatives in Chicago, and the recent backlash to the California State Board of Education’s “algebra for all” eighth grade mandate have become fodder for opponents of this reform. Soon after the publication of the report from the National Panel (2008), Education Week reported that some of the members of the National Panel considered the California eighth grade algebra initiative ill-advised (Cavanaugh, 2008).  The most vocal among them, Loveless (2008) of the Brookings Institute, maintains that “misplaced math students” are unprepared for the study of algebra, more likely to come from low income families qualifying for federal free or reduced-price lunch, and overwhelmingly Black and Hispanic. The general hesitancy to promote algebra in the 8th grade for all students, while well-intentioned, raises serious questions about what lies behind the concerns: system demands, cognitive demands, demographic demands, curricular demands, and/or instructional demands. How can the mathematics education community and its important partners (e.g. districts, schools, teachers, local communities, families) make forward progress on addressing this issue? 

The symposium will provide diverse perspectives that traverse policy-practice contexts including national, state, district, school and classroom. Furthermore, the geographic diversity represented by the various presentations underscores the national urgency of this issue. The first presentation focuses on the successful implementation of an 8th grade algebra initiative in a large southeastern school district (N= 68,000) that has effectively detracked its mathematics program in middle school. In the absence of a cohesive national initiative, school leaders in this district courageously responded to the varied recommendations from NCTM (2000, 2008) and the National Mathematics Advisory Panel (2008).  Over several years, these leaders collaboratively and successfully revamped their district’s mathematics policy and, most importantly, its curriculum and organizational structures that support that curriculum. As a result, the district now provides strong algebra instruction for all of its students in the eighth grade.  The district has reversed disproportionality in advanced math classes, and raised overall mathematics achievement, as evidenced by its 92% pass-rate among 8th grade students on the state’s algebra test.  This symposium will be chaired by the researcher of record who studied this school reform over 8 years.  The district’s mathematics coordinator who implemented the reform initiative will provide additional insights.

The second presentation will explain the most recent policy statement issued by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.  It will include the NCTM position statement regarding algebra, recent NCTM President's messages, and the NMAP (2008) statements about the importance of algebra will be offered as policy documents on this topic.

The third presentation reports findings from a year-long intervention project in an 8th grade mathematics class that focused on algebra.  Through a collaboration between a university mathematics teacher educator and a National Board Certified teacher, this presentation chronicles the journey of a majority-minority urban middle school mathematics class in the pacific northwest which started as a support class for “low achievers” and ended up as an 8th grade algebra class with substantial academic growth as measured by grades and standardized test scores. The story of this class highlights the instructional supports, challenges, and tensions involved in raising the bar of excellence for students identified as not ready for algebra. 

The final presentation will discuss the findings from a well-established program that uses a community-activist approach focused on algebra to support student mathematical advancement at the middle school level. The project’s program for middle schools has included instructional materials that make mathematics concepts more accessible to students who may have been struggling with traditional approaches, professional development for teachers, and strong relationships among the school, families and the community. The prime movers of successful long-term implementations for Grade 8 Algebra in a southern state and western state, respectively, will describe those implementations.  A member of the evaluation team that documented the implementations and examined student outcomes over a ten-year period will present those results. 

The symposium closes with an interactive discussion with the audience. Two established mathematics education researchers will serve as symposium discussants. One will facilitate initial symposium audience brainstorm and summarize key issues prior to the presentations. The other discussant will provide additional critiques following the presentations and co-facilitate the audience discussion. We anticipate that this interactive symposium will engage the audience in a vigorous discussion and move all session participants’ thinking forward. 

Timeline: This 90-minute research symposium will be organized as follows:

Overview of the problem: discussion and brainstorming                   10 minutes

Presentation #1                                                                                   15 minutes

Presentation #2                                                                                   15 minutes

Presentation #3                                                                                   15 minutes

Presentation #4                                                                                   15 minutes

Summary and discussion                                                                    20 minutes


Cavanaugh, S. (2008, July 30). Experts Question California's Algebra Edict. Education Week, p. 44.

Fennell, F. (2008, January/February). What algebra? When? NCTM News Bulletin.

Lawson, D. (1990). The problem, the issues that speak to change. In Edwards, E. (Ed.), Algebra for everyone. Reston, VA: National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.

Loveless, T. (2008). The Misplaced Math Student: Lost in Eighth Grade Algebra. Washington, DC: Brookings Institute.

McKnight, C., Crosswhite, F.J., Dossey, J., Kifer, E., Swofford, J. Travers, K. & Cooney, T. (1987). The underachieving curriculum: Assessing United States school mathematics from an international perspective. Champaign, IL: Stipes Publishing.

Moses, B., & Cobb, C. (2001). Radical Equations: Math, Literacy, and Civil Rights Boston: Beacon Press.

National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. (2000). Principles and Standards for School Mathematics. Reston, VA: National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.

National Mathematics Advisory Panel. (2008). Foundations for Success: The Final Report of the National Mathematics Advisory Panel. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education.

Oakes, J. (1985). Keeping track: How schools structure inequality. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Ravitch, D. (2000). Left back: A century of failed school reforms. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Sells, L.W. (1978). High school mathematics enrollment by race and sex. The mathematics filter: A new look at an old problem. Hartford, CT: S. Homer Associates.

Spielhagen, F. (2011). The algebra solution to mathematics reform. Completing the equation. New York: Teachers College Press.

Taylor, R. (1990). Teacher expectations of students enrolled in algebra. In Edwards, E. (Ed.), Algebra for everyone (pp. 45-52). Reston, VA: National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.


Julia Aguirre , Michael Bolling , Mary Maxwell West , Francis (Skip) Fennell and Robert P. Moses
Lead Speaker:
Frances R. Spielhagen
Mary Margaret Capraro and Robert M. Capraro

Description of Presentation:

Traditionally reserved for 9th grade, in recent years algebra has been taught in 8th grade, with mixed success and much controversy, as in the high-profile California 8th grade algebra mandate. This symposium centers on the question of whether most students can and should study algebra in eighth grade.

Session Type: Research Symposium

See more of: Research Symposium
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