Algebra Reform Effort Makes Dramatic Gains with Low-Income Los Angeles Students

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An innovative algebra program, serving low-income students in two Los Angeles Unified School District middle schools, replicates its success, while becoming a model for the district.

The reason students are failing algebra is not so much a math problem as it is a language problem.

An innovative algebra reform program at two Los Angeles Unified middle schools serving low-income students, shows dramatic gains on annual standardized test scores recently released by the State of California, proving that its success can be replicated, while possibly becoming a model for the district.

            Nour Zolfeghari and Mak Family, both former math instructional coaches from Berendo Middle School, located in the Pico-Union area of downtown, have just finished the first year of a multi-year partnership at a second school, Irving Magnet Middle School, also in Los Angeles, proving that their newly formed organization, Partners in Algebra, gets results.

            Kirk Roskam, Principal at Irving, has just seen the growth of his 8th grade Algebra scores take a huge leap from 25% to 66% Proficient and Advanced in just the first year of his collaboration. "The numbers we posted are actually astonishing and the best growth data I ever seen in my lifetime," said Roskam.

            As an organization that has its roots in Los Angeles Unified, Partners in Algebra has an intimate knowledge of the challenges low-income schools face in Los Angeles.

            Both Berendo and Irving’s student population is predominately Latino, and mostly poor, with 8 out of every 10 students qualifying for the National School Lunch Program. This student demographic makes the 90% Proficient and Advanced Algebra scores at Berendo even more remarkable – proving conclusively that they have closed the achievement gap in algebra. It is the only disadvantaged school to appear in the top 10 LAUSD middle schools for 8th grade Algebra proficiency, rivaling district schools in more affluent areas of the city.

            According to the California Dropout Research Project, 70% of students who don’t pass Algebra 1 by the 9th grade don’t graduate high school. Despite gains nationwide, the EPE Research Center has projected that the LAUSD will have a total of 31,752 dropouts by the end of 2013 – second only to New York City.

            While not the only indicator of why a student drops out of school, the difficulty with algebra, otherwise known as "the gatekeeper," is frustrating to principals and policymakers alike as they wrestle with the question of why students – especially low-income and second language learners – are failing on such a large scale and what can be done to help them.

            "I think it starts with the misconception that algebra is narrowly perceived as an 8th grade problem. The reality is more complex," said Zolfeghari, who is the primary architect of the reform effort, and designer of the program’s curriculum.

            They both became increasingly frustrated as 8th grade Algebra teachers, when state test scores confirmed that their teaching did not transfer into their students’ learning by the end of the school year.

            A decade ago, standing in front of his algebra class, Zolfeghari had a revelation. He walked across the hall and into the classroom of his English colleague, Bradley Brock, and interrupted his lesson. "He told me, ‘The reason students are failing algebra is not so much a math problem as it is a language problem,’" recalled Brock.

            Together, the three of them began to collaborate on an ambitious school-led reform model that focuses on the language of math, reimagines the algebra curriculum as a three-year course beginning in 6th grade, and uses more frequent assessment to accurately gauge student progress. Within two years, the proficiency of 8th grade Algebra students at Berendo climbed from a dismal 9% to an astonishing 61%, and in the process, has become an inspiration for L.A. Unified schools serving impoverished communities.

             Family, now a retired veteran of the district with over 30 years of teaching experience, reflected on that difficult first year of reform that has led to this moment. "Change is never easy, but the alternative was the status quo, which was total failure. Why do the same thing over again, if you expect to get different results?"

About Partners in Algebra:

Partners in Algebra is a Los Angeles-based organization that offers partnerships with a variety of educational institutions: schools, districts, non-profits, and charter management organizations. Since 2011, Partners in Algebra has been dedicated to closing the achievement gap in algebra by ensuring that low-income students, particularly English Learners, get both the access and equitable learning opportunities needed to be successful in K-12 mathematics, with a focus on algebra. For more information, please visit our website at or call (310) 562-7721.

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