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What's the 'Opportunity Cost' of Doubling Down on Math?

If you're struggling and disengaged in math class, do you need more math?

My colleague Liana Heitin is grappling with this over at Curriculum Matters, in the wake of a Stanford University study that finds the benefits of enrolling students in a double section of math in middle school peter out after a few years and have no effect on whether the student is likely to complete Algebra I and II on schedule in high school.

Study author and doctoral student Eric Taylor specifically points to the "opportunity cost" of students not having time to take an elective, like physical education, art, or a foreign language. That's even more pertinent considering that doubled classes have been a popular intervention in struggling, resource-strapped schools hoping to boost more of their students over the proficiency benchmark. So, the students plowing through double-dose math classes may have less access to enriching electives in the first place.

The research on doubled classes remains mixed. Some studies have found benefits from test-score gains to better graduation rates. Some have found improved high school class grades, though the Stanford study and other studies have not. In general, the studies seem to agree that more class time without better instruction doesn't do much. 

But few of these studies look specifically at what students could have been doing instead of going to marathon math sessions. According to the most recent 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress high school transcript study, students who completed a "rigorous" curriculum by graduation were more likely to score proficient on the NAEP—and the most common classes missed from that rigorous curriculum were in science and foreign language. The Stanford study specifically finds that students who doubled up on math in 6th grade were less likely to finish two years of foreign language in high school.

The National Center for Education Statistics has included questions on double-dose classes in its 2009 High School Longitudinal Study, with transcript data still being collected. It will be interesting to see how widespread double-dosing has become, and how much the practice affects the rest of students' courseload.

Want more research news? Follow @SarahDSparks on Twitter for the latest studies, and join the conversation.

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