Education Letter to the Editor

Early Algebra: Options to Ensure ‘Readiness’

March 09, 2010 2 min read

To the Editor:

In your article “Early-Algebra Push Seen to Be Flawed” (Feb. 10, 2010), Adam Gamoran, a professor of educational policy studies and sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is quoted as saying that “there’s no simple solution” to the problem of how to help students many years behind grade level in math.

While there may be no simple solution, there is a possible one: Why not enroll these students in classes designed to get them to grade level before they attempt algebra or more-advanced courses? One such option could be an algebra-readiness curriculum that would help students master the math concepts they previously have struggled to understand.

Unfortunately, the algebra-for-all push has relegated algebra-readiness curricula to irrelevance. This was ably demonstrated by California’s state board of education, which first approved an 8th grade algebra-readiness curriculum, then adopted an action to require all 8th graders to take and be assessed in Algebra 1.

The problem is that completing an algebra course with a passing grade does not ensure a student’s mastery of the subject or readiness for more-advanced courses. All students learn differently, so trying to make a one-size-fits-all curriculum won’t work. We need to ensure that they receive the appropriate groundwork for success in an algebra class, so that we stop pushing them into algebra before they are ready.

Cary Matthews

San Francisco, Calif.

To the Editor:

A strange statement in “Early-Algebra Push Seen to Be Flawed” requires a response. In a quote, Chrys Dougherty, a senior research scientist at the National Center for Educational Achievement, says, “Simply sticking students in courses without preparing them ahead of time for the class does not seem to work as an intervention.” Surely he jests.

Mathematics is a cumulative subject; elementary students build a solid foundation of skills and concepts before later proceeding to prealgebra and algebra, the gateway to higher math and science courses. The move to discovery, integrated math in the 1980s and 1990s eliminated content-rich sequential coursework and weakened that foundation.

By 2000, the pendulum was swinging back toward more-traditional math education, including the “tedious task” of memorizing math facts. But reconfigured grade levels and credential requirements meant that students in the crucial middle grades did not always have teachers trained to prepare them for prealgebra and algebra.

When I began teaching math in the 1960s, we had remedial, regular, and honors classes in various academic subjects. But the cry for equality caused districts to revise that policy. By the 1980s, my Algebra 1 classes contained gifted 8th graders, average-ability 9th graders, and 10th graders who had already failed the course—a frustrating situation.

New studies on tracking suggest that recognizing students’ differences can help boost their achievement. Math teachers know that rigorous preparation is required for algebra. Students’ individual differences mean 8th graders are not always ready. Why does this surprise researchers?

Betty Raskoff Kazmin

Medford, Ore.

A version of this article appeared in the March 10, 2010 edition of Education Week as Early Algebra: Options To Ensure ‘Readiness’