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To Learn the Value of Algebra, Just Ask an Eighth Grader

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Recently, a New York Times op-ed questioned whether learning algebra was necessary. The author opined that since it's not useful in many jobs and so many American students fail algebra anyway, perhaps schools should just stop teaching it.

I wish he would have asked my eighth grade algebra class at Williamsburg Collegiate Charter School in Brooklyn.

Many of my students might have agreed with him earlier this year. They frequently challenged me to explain the relevance of quadratic equations (which I countered with examples such as profit maximization and the physics of falling objects). At the end of our two-hour lessons, many of them might have been tempted to concur on the author's second point as well: it's just too hard.

But the best teachers in America inspire students to do what's hard -- and to do it well. They raise their students' expectations and standards.

As I tell my students, there is intrinsic value in studying algebra. And I would argue that much of it is relevant to the real world. Algebra requires students to learn how to see patterns, how to generalize these patterns into rules, and most importantly how to make connections and solve problems. They also learn valuable communication skills when explaining their reasoning to their peers.

The truth is mastering algebra is also like doing push-ups. There's nothing about push-ups that you're going to need to know later in life or that you would have to employ in some way on a job. But the fact remains: push-ups make your body stronger. And in just that way, algebra makes your brain stronger.

Without a doubt, algebra mastery is essential in fulfilling our goal to get every one of our students -- 99 percent of whom are African-American or Latino, 87 percent of whom are considered low-income -- to and through college. Completing algebra in eighth grade means students can be ready for calculus in high school, which makes them more attractive to colleges. Our students are trying to break the cycle of poverty. They can't afford NOT to take algebra.

It's a shame when so many schools and educators let young people think they might not be good at math. The subject is way too big to claim that some people are just "math people" and others aren't. I tell my students that there will be parts of math that you will pick up easily and then there will be parts where you will need to struggle and persevere. In the end, every kid can learn algebra. That's why we don't track or separate our students based on previous ability. We expect every eighth grader to perform at the same high level.

But just telling a student that algebra is important isn't enough. Math teachers have to be incredibly engaging and creative to ensure students are getting it. Anything less is not really teaching.

At my school, educators work really hard to ensure that our lessons are rigorous and fascinating. Students take two hours of math each day because if we want students to learn more, they have to spend more time learning. I get coaching on my planning and execution. For every two-hour lesson plan I deliver, I spend many hours preparing that plan to ensure that it is flawless for my students. And we are driven by data. We assess regularly to know who is getting it and who is not, and then we intervene with supports for any students who need them.

But hey, these are kids. So we also play games like algebra Pictionary and algebra Taboo to help students learn vocabulary and practice communicating. We race to see who can factor the most polynomials in a minute. We have "Mathletes" practice at lunch and compete on Saturdays.

Prompted by my students that they should get paid for going to school, we spent some class time actually calculating how much they were getting paid to be in class. We basically found the additional income of having a college degree over the length of a normal career, and then divided that by the total hours they spend in classrooms from K through 12. They were amazed at how much they actually "earn" -- and of course, they were even more invested after that.

All of this has an important effect: 62 of our 63 eighth graders this year passed the Integrated Algebra Regents exam that most New York students take in ninth grade. The only student who did not pass this year missed it by just two points. Moreover, our 98 percent passing rate compares with a 73 percent pass rate statewide.

The saddest part about the New York Times' op-ed was the author's suggestion that when students do poorly, adults should just give up. At my school, when faced with poor results, we don't give up. We double our efforts. And we do it with kids who came into our school at fifth grade lacking skills they should have mastered in third grade.

One of my students with special needs this year reminded me exactly why we never give up on any child. He came into my class more or less despising math. It was a battle every day to keep his head off of his desk. I sat him right up front, called on him regularly and checked in with him every time the students worked independently. He constantly complained about having tutoring during lunch and after school. He did not pass a single one of our quarterly assessments.

But by the end of the year, he got a Level 4 on his eighth grade state math test -- the highest score possible -- and passed the high school algebra Regents exam. He's off to high school this month well prepared for high school, college and beyond.

We are serious when we say every child can learn and master algebra. Our kids are the proof.