By Stuart Singer
“The Algebra Miracle” chronicles the story of the Algebra program at a high-poverty public high school from 1993-2011. This is the third in a series of posts outlining the steps that resulted in remarkable levels of student academic achievement. Both Step 1 and Step 2 are recounted in detail in Chapter 1 (A New Approach to Algebra 1. Step 3 is found in Chapter 2 (Making Adjustments).
The implementation of the unique “Algebra 1 Split” at Stuart High School was an excellent example of the importance of “bottom-up” communication. The involvement of every sector of the educational community helped to maximize the results.
The initial step
In 1994-95 and 1995-96 radical changes were occurring in the Algebra 1 program at Stuart High School in Fairfax, Virginia. Algebra 1 part 1, the first half of a two-year Algebra 1 program offered by the state, had been abolished as a separate course. Beginning in September of 1994, all students who would have normally been placed in Part 1 were enrolled into a regular Algebra 1 class. Those individuals in the course who had an average of D or F at the end of the third quarter were reclassified as Part 1 students. At the conclusion of the year they received a math credit in Part 1 and their grade was converted based on a scale which would translate the low Algebra 1 average into a higher mark. The underlying philosophy behind this approach was the belief that by exposing these students to the pacing, rigor and expectations of a regular Algebra 1 class they would be better prepared to succeed in the course when they took it for a second time the following year. Disruptions to the master schedule were minimized by making all of the student adjustments on paper rather than changing their physical classrooms.
The results from those initial years were encouraging. Students taking Algebra 1 in 95-96 after participating in the new Part 1 experience did better than the ones in 94-95 who had taken it as a separate class. In addition, since the vast majority of students still had an opportunity to receive a passing grade in either Algebra 1 or Part 1, teachers reported in this new format there were fewer classroom discipline problems in the latter part of the year. But while this modest degree of improvement was reassuring, it was not sufficient.
Beginning in May of 1997 the Virginia Standards of Learning (SOL) exams were going to be administered and Stuart HS faced daunting academic challenges. The school had the highest rate of free or reduced lunch, student mobility and ELL students in the district. To illustrate how skewed these numbers were in comparison to the other 23 schools in the district, Stuart’s 53% free or reduced lunch was more than the eight wealthiest schools combined. In order to effectively compete, this student body would need innovative ways to improve their academic achievement.
Devising a more radical plan
The performance of the first wave of students led to a dramatic proposal. If positive progress could be obtained by merely switching classroom status in March what would happen if the classes were physically divided into Algebra 1 and Part 1 classes at the end of the first semester based on student performance. The logic was simple. The students continuing in Algebra 1 could move forward for the second half of the year without the drag of the weaker students. For the ones who did poorly in the first portion of the course, the change would give them another full semester to master the first 50% of the curriculum.
But the potential negative impacts of such an approach were immense. It would require more than a hundred schedule changes midway through the year. The teachers of the repeat Part 1 classes would likely have an additional preparation. The Algebra 1 teachers would be starting with new classes in January. The administrative staff would have to justify the merits of this radical plan to the parents.
It takes a village to create real change
The math department was the first group consulted about the possibility of creating “The Algebra Split”. The proposal was discussed informally with the current Algebra 1 teachers and then as a topic at a department meeting. This led to one of my favorite interactions.
“You mean we can actually do this if we want to?” The veteran teacher’s tone was one of disbelief.
“I won’t know that until I get the approval of the administrative staff. But you guys are the first potential red light. If the answer from you is no, the proposal stops right here.” The look on her face was a combination of puzzlement and pride.
Overall the idea was met with a positive response which then led to a secret ballot vote by the Algebra 1 team. It passed unanimously.
Armed with this vote of confidence the next stop was the Director of Guidance. This was a critical juncture. Administratively this group would be most adversely affected by the new program. The school’s Director was a strong advocate for the students and a tireless worker. Her initial reaction was surprise. It was such a radical departure from anything ever done before at the school. But it was apparent that she understood the potential of the plan and within a few minutes she was saying, “I agree that this could be of huge benefit to the kids. We can figure out all of the details later.”
It was then on to the principal’s office. This was the easiest sale. While such a program would have significant impact on his job—he would have to answer to the district hierarchy and the parents—the fact that the idea had widespread support lessened many of his concerns.
Finally, after everything was in place within the building, multiple letters explaining the changes were sent to the parents and middle school. They were delivered prior to scheduling classes for the next year, the close of school, over the summer and shortly after the start of classes the following year. The teachers discussed the plan with their students in the first few weeks and at Back to School Night.
The right direction for change
Avalanches and mudslides are top-down events. Educational policies that are constructed in a similar manner can lead to less than maximal results. One of the important lessons learned from the formulation of the Algebra Split was that by gaining the insights and approval of the entire academic community, the potential for success was increased exponentially. The teaching staff embraced a concept that they had initiated, the counselors knew that the burdens they would have to bear would be understood and appreciated and the administrative team was viewed as facilitators rather than arbitrators. Meanwhile, the parents felt comfortable knowing that they had an open line of communication with the school. Now all that remained was for the program to actually work.
Next: Step 4 Measuring the results