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Don’t Give Up on Algebra: Let’s Shift the Focus to Instruction

Together, efforts like these have been successful in increasing access—more students are enrolling in algebra and enrolling ever earlier in their academic trajectories (Remillard et al., 2017; Stein et al., 2011). Yet we have not seen equal advances in achievement (National Center for Education Statistics, 2019). Overall NAEP mathematics proficiency rates have remained stable in the past decade in both 8th and 12th grades. Even more worrisome have been persistent demographic gaps in achievement, showing that despite the focus on access, inequitable mathematics education persists. Thus, improving access is alone insufficient to remedy racial inequities in mathematics education.

At the same time, school algebra itself has been in the crosshairs, with some calling for its reform and others its abolition (e.g., Berry & Larson, 2019; Levitt, 2019). Some argue that algebra needlessly holds students back and is only minimally relevant for future careers (e.g., Hacker, 2012). Others argue that school mathematics more generally is out-of-date and out of touch. This has led to recent calls to replace the emphasis on algebra in schools with courses that center on quantitative literacy, data fluency, or statistical investigation (e.g., Boaler & Leavitt, 2019). However, absent from the discussions of access, timing, and relevance of school algebra has been a focus on instruction.

Let’s Not Be So Quick to Give Up on Algebra

Arguments that suggest we do away with school algebra frame algebra itself as the problem and leave unexamined how and in what ways that algebra is taught.
This is a problem because it absolves us of having to think critically about changing how weteach algebra to create more equitable classroom spaces that support students in learning algebraic ideas.

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