Rethinking Eighth Grade Algebra

Washpost education columnist Jay Mathews has lost some of his gusto for making algebra a universal middle school experience. In his Class Struggle column today he writes: "Let's forget about eighth grade algebra for all. But let's push eighth grade algebra for as many as possible."

After initially cheerleading for the idea as a way to set the bar high for all students, Mathews was rattled by the release of a Brookings Institution report last month. The study showed that nearly 29 percent of 8th graders who scored in the bottom 10 percent of the not-very-strenuous National Assessment of Educational Progress were actually enrolled in Algebra I, Geometry or even Algebra II.

Yikes. The tension is: Do you accelerate students with the hopes of engaging them and putting them on track to higher math, fame, and glory? Or do you risk losing them by pushing too hard and putting them in the middle of abstract math discussions, when they are still struggling to add and subtract?

Let me say, from personal experience, math is a lot more fun when you have a clue what's going on. However, it would be nice if a "regular," skill-building math class could also be approached as challenging, too. I have not yet encountered a math concept that does not have some depth.

Fairfax County has taken a different approach to accelerating students in Algebra, than, say, California -- where all students within the next few years will be required to take an Algebra I test at the end of 8th grade. About half of 8th graders in Fairfax take Algebra I or something beyond it. So far, the middle school students who have taken the state test have overwhelmingly passed. Given the positive results, the county's math educators are getting ready to open the door a little further, possibly as soon as next year. But given some of the warning flares this report sends, it seems caution thus far has been warranted.

By Michael Alison Chandler  |  October 24, 2008; 12:09 PM ET  | Category:  Math Resources
Previous: Math for Kids of all Abilities | Next: Math Blogging from Japan


if they'd start by trying to get
"all" or "as many as possible" to,
oh, let's say, *add fractions*
(without a calculator), that would be
a darn good start.

congrats to ms. chandler on landing
a paying gig in mathblogging.
lots of good stuff already; keep it coming!


Posted by: vlorbik | October 24, 2008 1:15 PM | Report abuse

the comment editor ate my url:

Posted by: vlorbik | October 24, 2008 1:15 PM | Report abuse

Many of these kids seem to be deficient in calculation which is a skill best attained by practice, practice, practice. After enough examples, the understanding comes easier. I say this with no condescension. This sort of approach works in graduate mathematics also.

I feel that tremendous progress could be made if kids could be convinced, avoiding complicted verbiage such as word problems, to simply work the calculations over and over until they were proficient at it, whether in arithmetic or algebra. I find many people seem to find this approach to teaching children mathematics outlandish but learning to play the piano often starts with similarly laborious regime.

Posted by: mathlete | October 24, 2008 1:44 PM | Report abuse

Almost anybody with a good sixth grade math education should be able to handle basic algebra. Unfortunately, many kids arrive in eighth grade lacking even third and fourth grade math skills, so they have no chance to succeed in algebra. Rather than stopping the requirement of algebra in eighth grade, we should start requiring third grade math in third grade, fourth grade math in fourth grade, and so on. This self-esteem based nonsense of social promotion has to stop!

Posted by: BradJolly | October 25, 2008 12:05 PM | Report abuse

At Sylvan, we agree with the recommendations of the National Mathematics Advisory Panel. Each school district should ensure that all prepared students have access to an authentic algebra course—and should prepare more students than at present to enroll in such a course by Grade 8.

The emphasis here should be on preparing more students to enroll in an authentic algebra course, not simply enrolling all students in an algebra course in Grade 8. What we mean by the word "authentic" is that the curriculum must include, with adequate depth, the topics of school algebra as defined in the math panel’s report.

The main goal for early math education in kindergarten through pre-algebra should be proficiency with proportional reasoning, including fractions, decimals, and percentages because these concepts are the foundation of algebra. Unfortunately, many students do not have an adequate grasp of the building blocks and, therefore, struggle in higher mathematics. As the Education Program Manager of Mathematics for Sylvan Learning, everyday I see how math skill gaps - especially with fractions - prohibit students from reaching their full math potential. If a student does not have fluency with whole numbers and fractions, he most likely will struggle with algebra.

The recent "Foundations for Success" Final Report by the National Mathematics Advisory Panel concurs. It states, "...three clusters of concepts and skills - called the Critical Foundation of Algebra - reflect the most essential mathematics for students to learn thoroughly prior to algebra course work." These foundations include fluency with whole numbers by the end of Grade 6 and fluency with fractions and aspects of geometry/measurement in middle school prior to algebra participation.

We believe that students and their parents need to remember that preliminary algebra skills are introduced in pre-K with the initial concept of numbers represented by pictures and numerals used to describe quantities. As students progress with math concepts through elementary school, they build upon that foundation. This sequential progress is needed for algebra placement. Our schools need to do more to ensure students are properly prepared to succeed when they are enrolled in an algebra course, be that in Grades 7, 8, or 9.

Posted by Judy A. Brown
Education Program Manager of Mathematics for Sylvan Learning

Posted by: JHoltz | October 28, 2008 11:04 AM | Report abuse

Get the word out to Montgomery County Public Schools about the necessity of a student mastering specific essential skills prior to taking a more advanced class relying on those skills. Right now, some MCPS elementary principals feel heavily-pressured by top administrators to increase the number of students from certain demographic groups placed in "Gifted and Talented" classes, even if particular students' skills are below the minimum requirements for the classes. If a principal succumbs to such pressure, he commits a crime of child abuse, and should be prosecuted and punished for it.

Posted by: DoTheRightThing | October 28, 2008 5:17 PM | Report abuse

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