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Extra Credit--Why your commute is like algebra

My weekly Extra Credit column in the Extra sections of the Post, in which I dealt with questions or observations from readers, is no more, because the
Extra sections have evolved into the more colorful and more exciting Local Living section, also on Thursdays. I like the Q and A format, so plan to preserve it here on the blog, most likely on Wednesdays. Keep sending your thoughts, questions or complaints to me at If you have a beef with your local schools, I will be happy to ask them to explain themselves and report back what they said. I will file both the Local Living columns and these Extra Credit exchanges under the Extra Credit designation on the left side of this blog, if you want to look up previous posts.
Here is a reader reflecting on a wise man's remark about getting a head start on difficult subjects:

Dear Extra Credit:

Your Nov. 5 column on algebra readiness reminded me of the talks that Zalman Usiskin (well-known University of Chicago mathematician and curriculum reformer) used to present at National Council of Teachers of Mathematics conferences in the early 1990s. The title of the talk was something like "Preparing Students for College Entry Exams." Only he was not talking about the SAT or the ACT; he was talking about the test seventh graders took to determine whether they were strong enough in mathematics to take algebra in grade eight.

I am not as eloquent as Professor Usiskin, and my memory is faulty, so the finer points of the analogy he used may be missing. He said that his commute to work usually takes about 30 minutes. If he leaves the house with 30 minutes to get to work, he frets and worries for the entire trip and arrives to work in a frazzled state. If he allows 40 minutes or more to get to the job, he can enjoy his commute, doesn't suffer from road rage, and arrives in a much better frame of mind to begin work.

His point? Start students on algebra earlier. Explain the concepts. Dwell on the ideas and the skills necessary for success in algebra. Spread the algebra out over more than one year to give students whose "readiness" might not be there a chance to enjoy the view from the highway instead of just rushing to a destination.

Albert Goetz

That makes a lot of sense to me. Some of the strongest middle schools I know make sure every student gets a good beginning in algebra in the seventh grade, so they can finish strong in eighth grade, and be ready for high school. I wish I adhered to his good rule in my own trip management too.

By Jay Mathews  | November 11, 2009; 11:44 AM ET
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A lot of schools do this in one way or another. Pre-Algebra covers a lot of material that used to be taught at the beginning of Algebra I.

I am a BIG proponent of giving kids 2 years to learn and reinforce Algebra I (7th and 8th grade) but there is a lot of pressure not to do that because we are "slowing the kids down" or "not teaching quickly enough". However, I teach Algebra II and Precalculus and can clearly see that even my best students would have been very well served by a stronger grounding in Alg I.

Spend the extra time on Algebra I and it will pay dividends later.

Posted by: Wyrm1 | November 11, 2009 3:44 PM | Report abuse

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