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Algebra Too Soon?

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.

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jeanne January 25, 2014 at 10:45 AM
Really?! What is wrong with parents today? Why are we are we so uncomfortable challenging our children? When did parents stop being the primary teacher? Why do we expect the schools to do it all? Our children are not entitled to an “easy ride”. The simple truth has nothing to do with children entering Algebra too early, the simple truth is the parents are not contributing to the children's education. The parents expect the children to learn it all at school, it’s just not possible to learn Algebra in less than a hour per day. Algebra takes practice and takes the parents involvement.
Erin Nobles January 25, 2014 at 01:24 PM
Thank you for your comment, Jeanne. When I was in school, Algebra I was taught in 9th grade, or, if you were a strong math student, in the 8th grade. Unfortunately, I am seeing too many 7th graders being placed in Algebra I classes...the NORM now seems to be 8th grade...with little to no pre-Algebra as a precursor. I would submit that for many kids, this sets them up to fail, no matter how attentive their parents may be.
Richard Philip Blommaert January 26, 2014 at 09:32 AM
I refer you to the educational philosophy of Dr. Maria Montesorri. Students had a grasp of elementary algebra at the age of six.
Erin Nobles January 26, 2014 at 09:52 AM
Richard, great point and wholly consistent with my opinion here. One of the hallmarks of a Montessori education is a respect for the individual development of each child. Children are capable of marvelous things, as Dr. Montessori believed and I am sure we all agree. I see many children in early elementary school solving for unknown variables-they see it as "problem solving" but it is, in fact, basic algebra. However, without an understanding of basic arithmetic, including multiplication facts, factoring, and fractions, following along in an Algebra class is darn near impossible.

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