Climate Change and Eighth Grade Algebra

One notable feature of today’s industrialized societies is a commitment to science: an organized set of investigations designed to understand the world. Innumerable benefits have resulted from a commitment to science, including much of modern medicine. Yet there are times one wonders whether the same society that has invested so much in building knowledge is serious about absorbing and applying it. The case of eighth grade algebra is one example of our society “knowing” but not acting on what it knows.

As way of background, the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) manages the peer-reviewed Journal for Research in Mathematics Education (JRME), which has been published for nearly 50 years. During that time scholarly research has informed much of NCTM’s work, for example the efforts that NCTM began in the 1980s to develop and disseminate national mathematics education standards.

In 2008, based on research studies and on the experience of tens of thousands of mathematics teachers, NCTM published a position statement, Algebra: What, When, and for Whom. At a time when “raising standards for all students” was a powerful philosophy in education policy circles, NCTM wrote:

Only when students exhibit demonstrable success with prerequisite skills—not at a prescribed grade level—should they focus explicitly and extensively on algebra, whether in a course titled Algebra 1 or within an integrated mathematics curriculum. Exposing students to such coursework before they are ready often leads to frustration, failure, and negative attitudes toward mathematics and learning.

NCTM was trying to bring greater sanity to mathematics education policies. You might think that having students “demonstrate success with prerequisite skills” before enrolling in algebra would be an obvious policy—but if so, you would be wrong. The state of California, as one example, placed so much pressure on school districts to move algebra into the eighth grade that by 2008 “the proportion of California eighth graders enrolled in Algebra more than tripled [from just nine years earlier], from 16% to 51%.”

Even if they chose not to consult NCTM, California policymakers could easily have noticed an article in the Los Angeles Times, “A formula for failure in L.A. schools,” reporting that in 2004 fully 44% of students taking algebra in the city flunked, and another 17% received Ds. Evidently taking algebra was a disaster for L.A. students even before larger numbers of them were pushed to enroll in the course in eighth grade, ready or not. Shouldn’t policymakers have been aware of the failure rate of algebra students when a major newspaper reported on it (or earlier), and acted on that knowledge before the California State Board of Education mandated in 2008 that all students enroll in algebra by eighth grade?

Now, years later—accumulating research knowledge is slow work—education researchers have proved the obvious, that enrolling eighth graders willy-nilly in algebra is a bad idea. One recent study in California concluded “enrolling more [middle school] students in advanced math courses [notably algebra] has negative consequences for mathematics achievement.” Another study, based in North Carolina, concluded that students affected by accelerating enrollment in algebra “scored significantly lower on end-of-course tests in Algebra I, and were either no more likely or significantly less likely to pass standard follow-up courses, Geometry and Algebra II, on a college-preparatory timetable.”

Didn’t education policymakers have sufficient information, such as reported in the news article, as well as research and practical knowledge that NCTM drew upon, to reach a sensible conclusion about algebra requirements years earlier than publication of these two recent research papers?

Society often says that it wants to base policy on sound knowledge, including well conducted research. In fact, the No Child Left Behind Act of 2002 mandated that federal money spent on school programs be supported by “scientifically-based research.” However, that was a terrible idea because the research base in education is surprisingly thin, research has very little to say about what is worth teaching, and reality often falls far short of good intentions.

The case of mandating eighth grade algebra was based on ivory tower theories and wishful thinking more than it was based on knowledge or research. At times the missteps involving education research have been even more shocking such as when, despite mandates of No Child Left Behind, the Bush Administration supported “abstinence education” in schools although available research showed that it was not effective.

Generalizing, one conclusion is that ignoring well conducted research, as well as ignoring common sense, happens more frequently than one might wish. Even in medicine, which is especially driven by scientific research, a 2003 study found that Medicare patients with well-known illnesses had less than a 75% chance of receiving an appropriate and proven treatment that their medical condition called for.

Clearly, then, ignoring important scientific findings, as well as ignoring common sense, is not unique in the case of climate change. (Why are sea levels rising if the oceans are not substantially warming and expanding? That’s an example of common sense thinking.)

However, the stakes are so high for climate change that the world’s governments should have been paying closer attention decades ago, and acted more quickly. Yet in the United States we have the head-spinning spectacle that all the Republican candidates for the Presidential nomination were either ignorant of what climate science research has found or were in denial about the conclusions. One influential Republican Senator, Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, even brought a snowball to the floor of the Senate last year, in an effort to show that scientists are wrong about climate change. It seems virtually impossible to have a thoughtful conversation about science and the search for truth with anyone who thinks and behaves like that.

Psychology helps us understand why people can be so obtuse, even in an age of science.

(Note: For those interested in reviewing this blog in its entirety, it is available as a single document in the “About” section of this blog.)