Does Early Algebra Matter?

By Christian Bazán
Does Early Algebra Matter?, Hand writing algebraic equations on chalkboard

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Algebra is often considered a gatekeeper to success. It is a requirement for higher-level mathematics in high school and for virtually every post-secondary program, yet educators continue to struggle to adequately prepare students in this key subject. New research featured in the American Educational Research Journal, “Does Early Algebra Matter? The Effectiveness of an Early Algebra Intervention in Grades 3 through 5,” co-authored by Eric Knuth, the Director of the UT STEM Center, examines the effectiveness of teaching algebra to students much earlier than traditional methods - revealing significant benefits. 

The study took place over three years in 46 schools in a southeastern US state. The researchers examined the effectiveness of an early algebra intervention in Grades 3-5 with a diverse student population using a cluster-randomized trial design. The treatment schools received an intervention consisting of 18 one-hour lessons taught during their regular mathematical instruction throughout the normal school year, while the control students received only regular instruction. These intervention lessons were designed to engage students in the algebraic thinking practices of generalizing, representing, justifying, and reasoning with mathematical structure and relationships within the big ideas of generalized arithmetic; equivalence, expressions, equations, and inequalities; and functional thinking. This curricular-style intervention creates a plan to systematically develop children’s algebraic thinking, according to the study authors.

Scholars have long argued that noticing and reasoning with mathematical structure is essential to algebraic thinking. The study found that students treated by the intervention were more successful than control students in using structural strategies to solve equations and at building general arguments to justify arithmetic relationships. During the first year of intervention, control students increased their overall structural strategy use from 3% to 6%, while treatment students improved from 3% to 10%. In Grades 4 and 5, control students gained an average of 3% a year while treatment students gained 6%. By the end of the study, control students were using structural strategies 12% of the time, while treatment students were using them 22% of the time. Perhaps, most encouraging were the findings indicating that treatment students in the lowest SES schools showed the same clear advantage over their peers in the control group.

The authors also found a strong effect of the intervention on Grade 3 student performance on common algebra assessments that was maintained through Grade 5, placing treatment students at a significant advantage over the control students in their understanding of algebraic concepts and practices. 

The focus on algebra is particularly important given that algebra is an “academic passport for passage into virtually every avenue of the job market and every street of schooling.” (Schoenfeld 1995, pp.11-12) It is also clear that underrepresented groups are particularly affected by the marginalizing effects of algebra as a gateway to higher mathematics and STEM fields in general with researchers noting “students who do not study algebra are therefore relegated to menial jobs and are often unable to undertake training programs for jobs in which they might be interested. They are sorted out of the opportunities to become productive citizens in our society.” (Schoenfeld 1995, pp.12)

The study “Does Early Algebra Matter? The Effectiveness of an Early Algebra Intervention in Grades 3 through 5” is authored by Maria Blanton, senior scientist at TERC, Rena Stroud, assistant professor at Merrimack College, Ana Stephens, associate researcher at the Wisconsin Center for Education Research, Angela Murphy Gardinier, senior research associate at TERC, Despina A Stylianou, professor at City College of New York, Eric Knuth, professor and director of the STEM Center at The University of Texas at Austin, Isil Isler-Baykal, assistant professor at Middle East Technical University, and Susanne Strachota, assistant researcher at the Wisconsin Center for Education research. It is featured in the October 2019 issue of the American Educational Research Journal.


About the author:

Author of the news post picture

Christian Bazán is the Communications Coordinator for the STEM Center.