Another bite at a “farewell to algebra”

I’m re-posting a reply I made to a reader’s comment on my earlier “farewell to algebra” posting. The reader reiterated her school’s commitment to algebra; here is my response:

Let me share a personal story. I was homeschooling when my daughters first tackled algebra. My second daughter really struggled with the subject: She simply did not grasp the critical concept of negative numbers. I tried all sorts of tricks, and finally gave up and decided that she – we – needed to repeat Algebra 1. This is easier to do in home school, of course, but the decision initially discouraged both of us.

But the second time proved to be the charm. I don’t know if the initial problems were developmental (math teachers whom I know and respect claim that students vary enormously in their readiness to grasp certain concepts) or reflected some kind of math resistance. At any rate, I don’t mind telling this story on a blog that my daughter reads since the story has a happy ending. Algebra 1 finally conquered, the same daughter went on to excel in high school math, and even earned a 5 on her AP Calculus exam senior year. She majored in biology and chemistry in college, and did well in her math courses there, too.

Had she given up on algebra when it first threatened to take her down, my daughter would not have been able to pursue a career in the sciences that she loves.

I thought about this experience again today as I read an intriguing, and somewhat disturbing, article by Jacob Vigdor, a public policy and economics professor at Duke University. He argues that the drive to teach algebra to more students and at an earlier age has hurt our most academically-gifted students, by dumbing down algebra courses. He also adds the following very interesting empirical information:

With Duke colleagues Charles Clotfelter and Helen Ladd, I’ve recently conducted an evaluation of an algebra acceleration initiative that occurred about 10 years ago in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school system. Students placed into algebra a year early ended up significantly less likely to complete a three-course college prep math curriculum – Algebra I, Geometry, and Algebra II by the time they completed high school.

I still believe that we should push all students to study algebra, if only to preserve their future options. I also worry about separating the algebra sheep from the non-algebra goats, since I think disadvantaged and minority students are likely to end up in the non-algebra track. But – I agree that students need to be prepared to take algebra, and that pushing students into algebra too early can end their mathematical studies prematurely. My own daughter’s example strikes me as relevant. She turned out to be a very capable math student. But for reasons neither of us understands, she really wasn’t ready for algebra until 9th grade. Since she was very ready for calculus by 12th grade, who cares?

The common core has come under a lot of attack for moving the algebra standard from 8th to 9th grade, when many states required that algebra be studied earlier. I think many students ARE ready for algebra by 8th grade, or even sooner. Many students are not.

Moreover, math is one of the subjects that should almost certainly be tracked. If students need two years to master Algebra 1, let them take two years! (My own school offers a two-year Algebra 1 option, which includes a fair amount of remediation. Students must still complete Geometry and Algebra 2 to graduate.) If students are ready to move faster and dive deeper, let’s create classes that let them do this.

But I still think we shouldn’t give up on algebra.

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