The Algebra Problem: How Middle School Math Became a National Flashpoint

From suburbs in the Northeast to major cities on the West Coast, a surprising subject is prompting ballot measures, lawsuits and bitter fights among parents: algebra.

Students have been required for decades to learn to solve for the variable x, and to find the slope of a line. Most complete the course in their first year of high school. But top-achievers are sometimes allowed to enroll earlier, typically in eighth grade.

The dual pathways inspire some of the most fiery debates over equity and academic opportunity in American education.

Do bias and inequality keep Black and Latino children off the fast track? Should middle schools eliminate algebra to level the playing field? What if standout pupils lose the chance to challenge themselves?

The questions are so fraught because algebra functions as a crucial crossroads in the education system. Students who fail it are far less likely to graduate. Those who take it early can take calculus by 12th grade, giving them a potential edge when applying to elite universities and lifting them toward society’s most high-status and lucrative professions.

But racial and economic gaps in math achievement are wide in the United States, and grew wider during the pandemic. In some states, nearly four in five poor children do not meet math standards.

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