As Director of the Mathnasium Learning Center in St Petersburg, I frequently speak with parents whose children are failing Algebra I. Parents are frustrated because their kids are doing well in all of their other classes, but failing math. The students attend class regularly, try their best to follow along with the teacher, and attempt all of their homework. They may even do ok on some quizzes. When I speak with the students, however, it becomes clear that they are terribly confused when the teacher talks about factoring polynomials and finding slope intercepts. They literally does not understand what the teacher is saying. What is going on here?
Unfortunately, the simple truth is that too many students are being programmed into college-prep Algebra I too early. Algebra, with its equations and variables, is more abstract than the math that most students learn before it. It uses symbols and letters to generalize numbers, and these sets of symbols express math relationships as a very powerful problem-solving tool. When a student enters Algebra I without the prerequisite knowledge necessary for success, it’s a recipe for failure no matter how bright the child may be.
Students and their parents who think that all they want is to “survive and pass” Algebra I are not addressing the real issue: memorizing formulas without understanding the “why” of a math problem does not equate to learning. Next year, students who have merely “survived” this way will discover that they do not have a firm math foundation and their grades will most likely plummet.
But frankly, many students do not even survive. In a 2006 article in the Los Angeles Times, L.A. Superintendent of Schools and former Colorado Governor Roy Romer was quoted as saying that Algebra “triggers dropouts more than any single subject.”
We at Mathnasium think he is right. In the overall “big picture,” failure at the Algebra I level has been caused by the failure to ensure that students acquire Number Sense in the elementary grades and solid Pre-Algebra skills in middle school. In addition, many students are year-after-year put into classes for which they do not have the prerequisite knowledge for success. Under these conditions, it is not surprising that students struggle.
But, as the old adage goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Make math part of your student's daily life NOW, no matter what math class she is taking. For parents of older students, take an active role in class selection and don't let yourself be pushed into putting your child in a math class you suspect is too advanced. And, if you think your child needs help, reach out right away. Find out what tutoring options are available through the school or in the community. Call me at Mathnasium for more details about how we can help.