Evaluating the Quality of Universal Algebra Learning (EQUAL)

PI: Thurston Domina

CO-PIs: Marianne Bitler, Andrew Penner

Funding: Spencer Foundation


 Across the U.S., recent curricular reform efforts have attempted to broaden opportunities to learn by requiring all students to complete challenging courses. At the same time, gender inequalities in high school math have closed and racial and class-based inequalities have narrowed. Nonetheless, access and achievement in mathematics remains highly stratified along racial, ethnic, and class lines; and middle school mathematics course placement influences students’ later opportunities to learn as well as their occupational trajectories.


 By closely examining state, district, and school-level policies and practices related to middle school mathematics course placement in California, we aim to understand why expanding opportunities to learn has proven so difficult.

Research Questions

  1. How do educators sort students in middle school mathematics? How do they utilize student data to make sorting decisions? What factors influence this sorting process?
  2. What implications do middle school mathematics sorting practices have for the distribution of student achievement?

Research Sites

 The EQUAL project is built around a network of eight California public school districts that vary in size and that are ethnically, racially, socially, and economically diverse.

Data Sources 

  • Historical documents to reconstruct changing district and school level policies
  • Open-ended, in-person interviews with key officials at each participating district
  • Annual focus groups with teacher and administrators at 3-5 randomly-selected middle schools in each partner district 

Anticipated Benefits

This project takes advantage of California’s fluid policy environment related to middle school mathematics to gain new insights into the ways in which educators use data to sort students and the consequences of these policy decisions. Findings are expected to shed new light on educational policy implementation in an era of increasing federal- and state-level educational policy activism and particularly on the ways broad curricular intensification efforts and local contexts influence racial, class, and skills-based inequalities in opportunities to learn. In addition, our work will contribute to long-running conversations about academic tracking and its consequences.