Penn Graduate School of Education to Share in $1 Million Grant to Study Early Algebra Initiatives

PHILADELPHIA — A team of researchers from the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education and Michigan State University have been awarded a $1 million grant from the National Science Foundation to investigate how schools and districts are handling the “universal early algebra” imperative, a push for students to complete algebra before the end of ninth grade.

During the three-year project, the research team will survey about 1,000 school districts across the U.S., examining curriculum resources, teacher professional development, course sequencing and student assessment.  The study will also include intensive case studies of school districts in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Massachusetts and New Mexico.

Researchers will examine which early algebra teaching tools are being used and how those tools are being implemented.  They will also identify strategies, problems and broad trends in district policies and provide recommendations for alternatives. 

 “It is well known that districts are requiring all students to take algebra, sometimes as early as seventh grade; we also know that these requirements are presenting substantial challenges for schools,” Janine Remillard, a Penn GSE professor and project co-leader, said.  “We know very little about the strategies districts are employing to increase success with early algebra and whether they are successful or create other problems down the road.

“Our hope is to expand knowledge in the field about what is actually happening in the nation’s school systems, including which strategies are and are not successful.  Ultimately, we hope to inform the decision-making of state and district education officials.”

While the universal early algebra trend aims to increase U.S. competiveness and help level the playing field for students typically under-represented in the science, technology and math fields, experts are concerned about how early enrollment creates unequal opportunities to learn, because many poor and minority students are tracked into remedial and general math courses instead of algebra.   

Educators are also wondering how early algebra has the potential to affect college readiness.  For example, in districts where algebra is offered in seventh grade and students can satisfy all of their math requirements by 10th grade, experts question whether the students will struggle early in their college years.