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CPS School Committee Likely to Consider Expanding Algebra Curriculum Following Parent Concerns

The Putnam Avenue Upper School is a middle school within Cambridge's public school system.
The Putnam Avenue Upper School is a middle school within Cambridge's public school system. By Tyler N. Nilson
By Sally E. Edwards, Crimson Staff Writer

The Cambridge Public School Committee is expected to discuss a motion on expanding access to its Algebra 1 curriculum in their Aug. 8 meeting, following residents’ concerns over a lack of advanced math classes at the middle school level.

CPS middle schools do not currently offer Algebra 1. While the district says that “algebraic thinking is present in math curriculum,” the eighth-grade math curriculum will only be updated to include three units of algebra in the coming semester. According to a tweet from School Committee member David J. Weinstein, the committee is currently working on a policy to establish “equitable in-school algebra 1 for all pre 9th grade.”

In 1992 and 1998, the School Committee ordered that algebra be included in the middle school curriculum, only for state academic standards to counteract these efforts. The School Committee reviewed motions in 2010 to implement algebra at the elementary school level, and in 2013, incoming eighth graders were ensured that all students would have access to Algebra 1.

In 2015, CPS developed sixth- to eighth-grade Math Pathways, which established “grade level” and “accelerated” pathways for students. The accelerated pathway allowed students to study algebra in middle school, and test into Geometry in ninth grade — giving students the ability to take AP Calculus and other advanced courses in high school.

This program was discontinued in 2017, however, as Black and Latinx students predominantly comprised the grade-level track, while white and Asian students were overrepresented in the accelerated classes.

Boaz Barak, professor of Computer Science at Harvard and a CPS parent, said that while it is important for CPS to offer Algebra 1 in middle school, CPS must also “do a better job in the earlier grades” to “increase the fraction of students that are ready to take these more advanced courses.”

“I definitely don’t want to create the impression that if you somehow didn’t get extra math when you’re in third or fourth grade, then you will never be able to catch up,” he added. “It’s always possible to catch up — as long as you’re offered the opportunities to do it.”

Prior to the pandemic, CPS middle schools had committed to integrating these Algebra 1 units into the eighth-grade curriculum. However, due to pandemic learning delays and changing state requirements, the district was unable to follow its original timeline.

CPS Director of Communications Sujata Wycoff wrote in an emailed statement that the school district still plans to expand its eighth-grade math offerings.

“Cambridge Public Schools is deeply committed to providing a high-quality, rigorous learning experience for all of our students, while also placing a strong focus on addressing the academic achievement and opportunity gaps in our community,” Wycoff wrote. “Three of the seven units covered in Algebra I will be added to the 8th grade curriculum next year. We look forward to sharing details of this expansion in the near future.”

According to Nolan, the district is weakened as a result of the lack of Algebra 1 curriculum at the middle school level.

“There’s a very large percentage of families who feel that we are not delivering the quality education at the middle school level that they expect, and I think deserve,” she said in an interview. “And it’s a real shame because we have the resources to do it — we’re just not properly directing those resources to ensure that students and families are getting a really great education at every level.”

In a report published earlier this year, The Crimson found that CPS enrollment has consistently dropped at the middle school level within the district. In 2023, class sizes shrunk from around 500 at the K-5 level to 400 in the middle school grades, before growing again at the high school level. On average, CPS middle schools have a higher percentage of Black students, as compared to elementary schools.

Nolan said these demographics make the district’s policy to not include Algebra 1 in the eighth-grade curriculum all the more concerning.

“Many of our independent schools have every eighth grader doing it — our kids aren’t different,” she said. “If you don’t believe our kids can do it — because we have a higher percentage of low-income students of color — you really are saying you don’t think low-income students of color can handle it.”

Wycoff said in an interview that the district is being “very thoughtful and intentional” about its plans to include Algebra in the middle school curriculum.

“We have excellent educators who are passionate about and dedicated to the academic success of each of our students and ensuring they are supported,” she wrote in an emailed statement. “The pandemic paused our initial rollout of integrating specified Algebra 1 units into the 8th grade curriculum in the 2019-2020 school year.”

“We are now poised to begin implementing the plan, which has been designed thoughtfully, with intentionality, and centered on our core value that each of our students can excel,” she added.

In an interview, Nolan said the district cannot use Covid-19 as an excuse for unfulfilled promises.

“Last time I checked, every single other school in the state had the same pandemic, and they’re not backtracking on their promise of algebra,” she said.

Adrian B. Mims Sr. — founder of The Calculus Project, a nonprofit dedicated to providing disadvantaged students with support in advanced math classes — said that offering Algebra 1 to CPS eighth graders is “a step in the right direction” to ensuring equity within the district.

“They’re going to have to provide students more time on task to learn the content,” he said of the district. “They’re going to have to make sure that the teachers who are providing the instruction are well-resourced, well-supported, and they have the proper professional development.”

Nolan said that providing Algebra 1 at the middle school level will help CPS reach the “level of education” that is “appropriate for a high-performing district.”

“This isn’t about necessarily providing it to only some,” she said. “It is about fulfilling the promise that has been made on and off over the last literally 30 years, to say we should be and can be a district where every single student is given appropriate education.”

Correction: August 6, 2023

A previous version of this article misspelled the name of CPS Director of Communications Sujata Wycoff.

—Staff writer Sally E. Edwards can be reached at sally.edwards@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @sallyedwards04.

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