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Cambridge school leaders plan for universal eighth-grade Algebra 1 by 2025

Students at Vassal Lane Upper School work on a math assignment in class. Cambridge no longer offers advanced math in its public middle schools but a proposed policy could change that.Katye Martens Brier/For The Washington Post

Cambridge school leaders presented a plan Tuesday evening to teach Algebra 1 to all eighth-grade students by 2025, following months of controversy over a district policy that limits options for students to take the course before ninth grade.

The School Committee also considered a related motion that would make the course available to all eighth-graders by the same deadline; that proposal did not specify whether it would be an optional course or the core curriculum. After extensive discussion, member Alfred Fantini blocked the committee from voting on the measure Tuesday.

The district was already adding three of the seven Algebra 1 units to eighth-grade math in the coming school year; under the plan unveiled Tuesday, the rest of the Algebra 1 curriculum will gradually follow, while the existing middle school math curriculum will be compressed into grades six and seven.


“This is something that I am responding to in terms of what the community has been asking for and been promised for years,” said district math director Siobahn Mulligan.

That proposal, sponsored by members David Weinstein, Rachel Weinstein (no relation), and Caroline Hunter, left the details up to administrators but said the district should not put students into separate tracks that take either advanced or grade-level math classes.

In addition to the Algebra 1 proposals from the district leadership and the committee members, the committee unanimously approved another motion to hold a roundtable discussion on mathematics to inform potential policy changes.

Committee members expressed some reservations about the proposed changes, including regarding difficulty of compressing what are currently three years of math into two years and the potential harm to students who are not ready for Algebra 1 in eighth grade.

Public comments were mixed on the School Committee proposal.


Katie Ng-Mac, a parent of elementary students, said she took Algebra 1 in middle school as a student from a low-income family in New York City’s Chinatown, and that she attributes her own success to opportunities like that.

“Social mobility is really what makes me believe so much in the public school system that we have in this country,” Ng-Mac said. “So I just want to say that I’m very glad that some of our committee members are putting in place a solution to fix the issue around Algebra 1.”

But Rebecca Bowie, a resident and an eighth-grade math teacher in another district, said Algebra 1 is not the right way to increase the middle school math curriculum, and that the School Committee proposal, with its focus on “opportunity,” would likely lead to separate math classes, or tracks, despite the line in the motion to the contrary.

“The heart of this conversation is so many families saying kids aren’t getting a rigorous quality math education,” Bowie said. “That is devastating feedback that you absolutely must do something about, but Algebra 1 in eighth grade is a lazy answer that won’t fix the underlying issues and will actually only exacerbate them.”

Amina Sheikh, also a high school teacher in another district, agreed.

“I think learning in heterogeneous classrooms is incredibly important because it’s what makes our kids willing to participate in diverse communities,” Sheikh said.

Cambridge NAACP president Kenneth Reeves lamented that when he was on the School Committee in 1992, they were having the same conversation and that the district has not been able to implement universal Algebra 1 in the decades since.


“The Cambridge NAACP believes that public school children should all be given the opportunity to have courses that will align them and launch them for success in their futures,” said Reeves, who is also a former Cambridge mayor.

The district used to offer an accelerated math program that included middle school algebra but phased it out from 2017 to 2019 in the face of stark racial disparities in who was taking the advanced classes.

But some families and educators have argued the decision has had the opposite of its intended effect, limiting advanced math to students whose parents can afford to pay for private lessons or find other options for their kids.

The issue, critics say, is that without taking Algebra 1 in middle school, it’s difficult for students to reach advanced classes later that would better prepare them for STEM college degrees and career paths — although not impossible because Cambridge high school students can “double-up” and take two semester-long honors math classes in a single year.

In the last couple of years, nearly half of students entering Cambridge’s high school from outside the district have placed out of Algebra 1, while less than 20 percent of those from district middle schools have done so, according to district data.

Until eighth-grade Algebra 1 is universal, the district plans to expand an existing free online summer program, the CAMBridge Program, that incoming ninth-grade students can use to place out of Algebra 1. It will become a year-round program, offering an alternative to private tutoring.


Christopher Huffaker can be reached at Follow him @huffakingit.