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Why I hope others get to algebra sooner than I did

[This is my Local Living column for Nov. 5, 2009]
Sputnik got me into algebra early, almost. The Soviet satellite frightened the U.S. government into approving lots of money to accelerate math instruction just as I was completing eighth grade in San Mateo, Calif., in 1959. Hillsdale High, where I was to attend ninth grade, got some of these funds and decided to finance summer school in Algebra 1 for four incoming freshman math wonks, me and three other socially awkward friends of mine.

Unfortunately, I didn't get the letter. There was a mixup because I use my middle name, a lifelong problem. As vain as a 14-year-old grade grubber could be, I was upset that I wasn't invited to join my peer group. By the time my mother checked and discovered the error, it was too late for me to enroll. So I have always had a thing about kids not being allowed to take algebra when they are ready for it.

You can imagine, then, how I ground my teeth last month when I heard two math and science teaching experts, Loudoun County Academy of Science Director George Wolfe and Brookings Institution scholar Tom Loveless, say on "The Kojo Nnamdi Show" on WAMU (88.5 FM) that we are letting too many, not too few, students take Algebra 1 early. They had good reasons. Loveless revealed a year ago that 28.6 percent of eighth-graders scoring in the bottom 10th on the National Assessment of Educational Progress math test were enrolled in first-year algebra, geometry or second-year algebra, clearly out of their league.

Okay, I said to my car radio, but I was kept out of algebra for a stupid reason when I was ready for it, in all my prepubescent brilliance. Might there still be many other students suffering the same fate? How does anyone know when somebody is or isn't ready for algebra?

I decided to ask Wolfe and Loveless, my villains for the purposes of this self-absorbed drama. Again, they had good answers. Loveless appears to be a member of every important education panel in existence, including the National Mathematics Advisory Panel, which issued a report in March 2008. He said that group recommended that an incoming algebra student have a good understanding of "whole number arithmetic, fractions and rational numbers, variables and expressions, integers, roots and exponents, graphing, and rudimentary knowledge of geometry." He even suggested a few online readiness tests I could try, such as, to see just how disastrous was the decline of what I considered my once awesome math skills.

Wolfe explained that when determining which students have the math conceptual strength to be admitted to his public school magnet program, his staff uses the PSAT because it asks students to use their algebra, not just plug in functions they can learn by rote, a failing he attaches to at least some questions on the Virginia Standards of Learning algebra test.

Okay, I said. That makes sense. But Loveless showed that we are also missing students ready for algebra. Among the top 10 percent of eighth-graders, 18 percent are not in algebra or above, and that percentage is 24.6 for top black, Hispanic and low-income students.

Even students who aren't ready seem to do better when allowed to struggle with algebra and learn from great teachers. I am writing a book about a long-forgotten 1990s program called Equity 2000, which required that six pilot districts -- all cities with large numbers of low-income minority students -- guarantee that every student took algebra no later than ninth grade. Within four years, the number of students passing algebra as ninth-graders in some of those districts was larger than the number allowed to take it before Equity 2000 began. This is important, because conquering algebra appears to raise confidence and increase chances of doing well in other courses, particularly the sciences.

My colleague Michael Alison Chandler, who was also on the WAMU show, took my question to Michelle Welin, who teaches math at Thoreau Middle School in Vienna. "There is no magic dust we can sprinkle, and if you glow, you belong in algebra," Welin said. But, she added, "I do believe they can learn more mathematics than we give them credit for."

I think we should try harder to help students do that, or at least let them accelerate once they have shown they can handle the algebra challenge. That's what happened to me. I did Algebra 1 in ninth grade and took geometry in summer school so I could catch up with Danny, Jim and Francis. For me, it was a good motivator, one of many that teachers use to get kids to a new level.

By Jay Mathews  | November 5, 2009; 1:53 PM ET
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"Even students who aren't ready seem to do better when allowed to struggle with algebra and learn from great teachers."

And therein lies the problem. Math education is lacking in good teachers. (sadly, this goes for many subjects) There are many good teachers. There seems to be just as many poor teachers. And now with this testing craze, there's hardly the time for the great teachers to help each child really master the subject.

Posted by: RedBirdie | November 5, 2009 3:43 PM | Report abuse

I went to school in the Edmonds school district in Washington state. I had always been good at math, and when a small group of my classmates were chosen to take algebra in eighth grade, I felt angry and left out. When I was finally able to take algebra in ninth grade, I was amazed at how simple it was and felt angry that I hadn't been able to take it much earlier.

My daughter attends public school in Singapore where algebra is introduced to all children--the gifted and the not so gifted-- in 6th grade. I have nothing but praise for Singapore's math program. It has served both my children well. If anyone is interested, their math syllabuses are listed on the Singapore Ministry of Education website.

Posted by: dw99 | November 5, 2009 6:33 PM | Report abuse

My son took Algebra 1 in 7th grade but the teacher was terrible. Almost everyone in the class was flunking by December. We hired private tutors so he could get by with a C for the year. He took Geometry in 8th grade and again got a C. Took that over in 9th grade and got a C. Pattern here? The school placed him in Algebra 1 in 7th grade and said 'He will be fine and if not you can pull him out". But by the time the situation was revealed it was too late to pull him out. The quality of the instructors is key to successfully teaching Algebra 1 to 7th graders and geometry to middle schoolers in general. If the teacher is no good the kids won't do well. Now my daughter is in 7th grade and although the school wanted to put her in Algebra 1 I said no way. She is taking 7th Math Honors and doing very well. Lesson learned.

Posted by: samney | November 8, 2009 10:51 AM | Report abuse

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