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Algebra for All: California’s Eighth-Grade Algebra Initiative as Constrained Curricula

by Thurston Domina, Andrew M. Penner, Emily K. Penner & AnneMarie Conley - 2014

Background/Context: Across the United States, secondary school curricula are intensifying as a growing proportion of students enroll in high-level academic math courses. In many districts, this intensification process occurs as early as eighth grade, where schools are effectively constraining their mathematics curricula by restricting course offerings and placing more students into Algebra I. This paper provides a quantitative single-case research study of policy-driven curricular intensification in one California school district.

Research Questions: (1a) What effect did 8th eighth grade curricular intensification have on mathematics course enrollment patterns in Towering Pines Unified schools? (2b) How did the distribution of prior achievement in Towering Pines math classrooms change as the district constrained the curriculum by universalizing 8th eighth grade Algebra? (3c) Did 8th eighth grade curricular intensification improve students’ mathematics achievement?

Setting: Towering Pines is an immigrant enclave in the inner-ring suburbs of a major metropolitan area. The district’s 10 middle schools together enroll approximately 4,000 eighth graders each year. The districts’ students are ethnically diverse and largely economically disadvantaged. The study draws upon administrative data describing 8th eighth graders in the district in the 2004–20-05 through 2007–20-08 school years.

Intervention/Program/Practice: During the study period, Towering Pines dramatically intensified middle school students’ math curricula: In the 2004–20-05 school year 32% of the district’s 8th eighth graders enrolled in Algebra or a higher- level mathematics course; by the 2007–20-08 school year that proportion had increased to 84%.

Research Design: We use an interrupted time-series design, comparing students’ 8th eighth grade math course enrollments, 10th grade math course enrollments, and 10th grade math test scores across the four cohorts, controlling for demographics and prior achievement.

Findings/Results: We find that students’ odds of taking higher level mathematics courses increased as this district implemented the state’s Algebra mandate. However, even as the district implemented a constrained curriculum strategy, mathematics achievement growth between 6th sixth and 10th grade slowed and the achievement advantages associated with 8th eighth grade Algebra declined.

Conclusions/Recommendations: Our analyses suggest that curricular intensification increased the inclusiveness and decreased the selectivity of the mathematics tracking regime in Towering Pines middle schools. However, the findings suggest that this constrained curriculum strategy may have may have unintended negative consequences for student achievement.

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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 116 Number 8, 2014, p. 1-32
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 17511, Date Accessed: 9/20/2020 12:47:29 AM

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About the Author
  • Thurston Domina
    University of California, Irvine
    E-mail Author
    THURSTON DOMINA is Associate Professor of education and sociology at the University of California, Irvine. He studies the relationship between education and social inequality. In addition to his work on middle school mathematics, he is currently involved in projects researching admissions, instruction, and persistence in U.S. post-secondary education.
  • Andrew Penner
    University of California, Irvine
    E-mail Author
    ANDREW PENNER is Assistant Professor of sociology at UC Irvine. His research focuses on gender and race inequality in the labor market and educational system. He is currently involved in projects examining gender inequality in transition economies, racial fluidity in the United States, and international gender differences in education.
  • Emily Penner
    University of California, Irvine
    E-mail Author
    EMILY PENNER is a PhD student in the School of Education at UC Irvine. Her research focuses on educational inequality and policy, and considers the ways that districts, schools, teachers, peers, and parents can contribute to or ameliorate educational inequality. She is currently involved in projects examining the impact of alternative teacher preparation programs, how curriculum placement policies affect student learning, and the quality of measures of teacher effectiveness.
  • AnneMarie Conley
    University of California, Irvine
    E-mail Author
    ANNEMARIE CONLEY is Assistant Professor of education at UC Irvine. Her research asks how students’ motivation to learn develops and how this development can be supported by teachers, classrooms, and schools.
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