« Performance Pay: What do Teachers Say? | Main | True Teacher Leadership: Next Step for NBCTs? »

Algebra for All 8th Graders: Dropout Cure?


A great deal of virtual ink has been spilled over the past week debating the merits of the California Board of Education’s decision to approve Governor Schwarzenegger’s proposal to require all 8th grade students to take Algebra.

Assistant U.S. Secretary of Education Kerri Briggs revealed her thinking to the Associated Press, saying "Kids are dropping out because they're bored and they don't feel like there's enough challenge and expectations for them," she said. "This may be exactly what they need to help spur achievement."

This got me to wondering about the basis for this claim. The rising dropout rate has become everyone’s favorite reason for change. Is there research to support Ms. Briggs in this regard? Yes and no. I spent a few hours scouring the internet for research, and here is what I found.

This study summarizes the results of interviews with 500 dropouts, ages 16 to 25, and here are the reasons they gave for dropping out:

* 47% said classes were not interesting
* 43% missed too many days to catch up
* 45% entered high school poorly prepared by their earlier schooling
* 69% said they were not motivated to work hard
* 35% said they were failing
* 32% said they left to get a job
* 25% left to become parents
* 22% left to take care of a relative

Two-thirds said they would have tried harder if more was expected from them.

This would seem to support Ms. Briggs’ suggestion that we should make classes more challenging, and requiring Algebra would seem to fit the bill. But these are 16 to 25 year-olds -- far beyond the age that will be directly affected by this new policy. How will this affect middle school students?

There were some other studies which raise some flags we may want to give heed.

The California Dropout Research Project has released a study: What Factors Predict High School Graduation in the Los Angeles Unified School District?

Of the academic experiences this study explored, failing courses, especially Algebra 1, had a particularly severe impact on the likelihood of graduating on time. Approximately half (49%) of the students failed at least one core academic class (mathematics, English language arts, science, and social science) during their middle school years, and over three fourths of students (77%) failed at least one academic core course during their high school years.

According to this report by Gregory Woods,

Poor academic performance is the single strongest school-related predictor of dropping out.

So it would seem that it is critically important to not only give students the opportunity to take Algebra, but also to make sure they are adequately prepared for it, and well-taught during it. Because if they do not succeed, they will have failed the rigorous challenge we have placed before them, and this will increase the likelihood that they will not finish high school.

And this is where things get complicated. I work with science teachers in the Oakland schools, and I know that at the middle school level, approximately half of our teachers are in their first or second year. The turnover is similar for middle school math teachers. This means many students in our schools are taught by novices who lack the experience needed to provide a rich and engaging math curriculum -- and sometimes there are even taught by substitutes, who generally deliver a very poor quality of instruction . This article in the Los Angeles Times describes similar circumstances there. Furthermore, with the state budget in trouble, the schools are staring in the face of a $4.8 billion budget cut – proposed by the same governor who has brought us Algebra for every 8th grader. So we have what seems to me a big disconnect. Ever higher mandates for our students and schools, and ever-diminishing resources with which to meet them.

UPDATE: In September, the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics issued a statement entitled "Algebra: What, When and For Whom."

It states, in part:

Algebra When Ready

Only when students exhibit demonstrable success with prerequisite skills—not at a prescribed grade level—should they focus explicitly and extensively on algebra, whether in a course titled Algebra 1 or within an integrated mathematics curriculum. Exposing students to such coursework before they are ready often leads to frustration, failure, and negative attitudes toward mathematics and learning.
All students should have opportunities to develop algebraic reasoning.
Algebra is an important gateway to expanded opportunities. Because of the importance and power of algebra, all students should have opportunities to learn it. With high-quality teaching and suitable support, all students can be successful in their development and use of algebra.

Update #2: A California judge has issued an injunction blocking implementation of the 8th grade algebra mandate. An article in the SF Chronicle states:

The preliminary injunction prevents the state from enforcing the Algebra I policy while the case proceeds through the legal process. It was scheduled to go into effect in three years.

While the legal arguments were based on technicalities, O'Connell's opposition to the requirement has been more firmly grounded in his belief that state schools wouldn't be able to get kids ready for the requirement without significant resources - up to $3.1 billion for more teachers and remedial instruction, among other costs. That's a 6 percent increase to the state education budget even as the Legislature considers widespread midyear cuts for schools.
"We cannot just tell our students and teachers the end goal and expect them to get there on their own," he said Friday. "Without additional funding, we're simply setting our students up for failure."

Update 3: Now, from Chicago, comes news that 9th grade Algebra for all is having many of the negative consequences discussed here:

While algebra enrollment increased across the district, the percentages of students failing math in 9th grade also rose after the new policy took effect.

By the same token, the researchers say, the change did not seem to lead to any significant test-score gains for students in math or in sizeable increases in the percentages of students who went on to take higher-level math courses later on in high school. While algebra enrollment increased across the district, the percentages of students failing math in 9th grade also rose after the new policy took effect.

So what do you think? Is Algebra for all 8th graders a good way to address the dropout crisis? What do we need to do to make this work?


This seems like an overly simplistic way to fix a very complicated problem. Our students dropout because the high school curriculm offers very little real world value to students that are not interested in going to college. We really need to step back and examine what we want high school education to accomplish. Is the purpose of a high school education to produce a valuable citizen (hard working, politically active, tax paying)? Is it to help students develop their individual potential? or is it to prepare them all for college (NCLB style)?

A better way to address the dropout rate is to have a middle and high school curriculum that helps students identify their areas of interests, and then prepares them to enter the 'real world' with those interests in mind. Rewriting texts that combine pratical knowledge with core subjects may help students see the value in completing a high school education.

Requiring Alegebra in 8th grade may put an element of challenge into school, but it does not put value into it. If students do not see the benefit in school, they will still dropout.

An Algebra I requirement for ALL 8th graders is a HUGE mistake. My son, a solid A-B student took Algebra I this year in 9th grade. He worked hard, and I frequently helped him with homework. He still came out with a C while making a 99 average for the year in Honors English. A friend of ours, a year younger, did take the 8th grade Algebra. (Our middle school teaches the first high school semester for the whole year.) She is a straight A student who has been recommended for all honors classes headed to 9th grade, which she did sign up for. She also found it extremely hard and has decided not to take the credit and retake the whole Algebra I class as a 9th grader instead of moving on to Geometry.

There will be many students very frustrated by this course so early, and I am afraid that this will encourage many to consider dropping out even earlier. This is the most ridiculous idea I have recently heard.

Laura Hughes, M.Ed.

This issue, like NCLB, is such a tough issue for me. On the one hand there is research to show that reasonable norms and expectations for our students are an important component of learning. However, while necessary, they are not sufficient.

It does little good to insist on algebra for every student when the teacher core cannot provide algebra for every student. It has been my experience that many ms teachers do not have a good grasp of fundamental concepts in science and math. In a textbook driven environment, this becomes very problematic.

In science, the advent of student centered, inquiry and activity based instructional materials has alleviated that problem somewhat, since the content is now embedded in the materials and in student experience, and the teacher's role is more of manager of learning rather than deliverer of knowledge. It is still true of course the more science knowledge should make for a better science teacher. Sadly more science knowledge, or the belief that one has more science knowledge can interfere with implementing a more student centered approach, so it cuts both ways.

What I don't know is whether or not there are algebra and pre-algebra instructional materials that would do in math what FOSS, STC, and others do in science.

It is a terrible gordian knot...

Requiring Algebra I for all 8th graders is a big mistake. I'm all for increasing the rigor of school, but students must know the basics. Being deficient in the basic functions of mathmatics is the primary reason students aren't sucessful in high school math classes. It is not that they don't know algebra. Many students who score well in algebra end of course tests, do not score well on the regular math achievement tests - a constant problem faced by middle schools trying to make AYP.

As a 30 year veteran teacher and administrator, I have watched the changes - and nothing really changes. I took algebra over 40 years ago in 8th grade, but struggled with math in high school. Algebra is important to the success of today's student, but why can't they wait to mature a bit before they take it?

Students drop out because of a myrid of problems, the most common is failure. If a student does not attend regularly, is placed in the wrong class, has family or personal problems, he/she is likely to fail. If enough failures occur, dropout follows.

If we want to reduce the dropout rate, we better find some supports for the student.

Why are students so afraid of algebra? I just taught 3 professional development sessions of algebra to teachers in my district. I was amazed at how many were afraid to take a nath course when they heard it would be algebra and not math methods. Some had to be convinced that they should stay. By the end of the week, everyone agreed that it wasn't as bad as they remembered from high school, they had fun, and they definitely learned something.
Students who are successful at algebra need 2 things: a strong base in arithmetic and a teacher with a thorough knowledge of the subject and the ability to communicate it to the students. If 8th graders do not have that strong base, they are going to be frustrated by algebra. Mandating algebra for every 8th grader is a mistake. Many are not ready. Offering algebra to 8th graders who are ready, and strongly encouraging them is preferable to forcing them. These are teenagers. If they are forced into something, they are going to be resistant. That is not going to lead to success.
Taking algebra in 8th grade is not going to effect the drop out rate. True, some students drop out because they say they are bored or not challenged. But, does anyone really believe that? Students drop out because they can't see the value in the courses they are given. They are taking what is required in order to pass the big graduation test. The focus is so narrowed in on that test, and the money is so dedicated to passing it, that there are no interesting subject options. Where is the variety in social studies and reading courses that was there when I was in school? Where are the college prep, business and general studies programs? Why is everything geared toward college, when we know everyone is not going to get there? I teach middle school math in a large urban district where there is one trade school that offers car maintenance training and one that offers beautician courses. What happened to those courses that prepared students to work in an office, typing, filing, answering phones, etc.? Where are the courses that lead to jobs right out of high school?
If our high schools provide students who are not college-bound with a real program of education in a field that interests them, the drop out rate would truly be affected. Forcing 8th graders to take a math class for which they are ill-prepared is not the path to take.

I have found that many 8th graders do not have the abstract reasoning skills that are necessary to succeed in a traditional Algebra class. They do not understand the concept of a variable. I have taught traditional Algebra and reform Algebra. It doesn't matter. Some 8th graders are ready for Algebra but many are not.

I believe that Algebra should be taught as a course of study in the eighth grade
and that pre-algebra should be taught in the 7th grades. We have done too much remedial and anything less gives students the option to fail or get around the subject by taking easier courses until their are no other options.

"Failure is no Option" LOL
"All students should take algebra in 8th
grade" LOL "Everybody can beat Tiger Woods at golf."
LOL These are all rather
ridiculous. Did people forget about the normal curve? Not everyone can succeed. I taught 8-12th grade math for 35 years.
Many students didn't know multiplication tables and appeared to never have heard of fractions. Others
couldn't do any math mentally. There should be classes to prepare some of the students to be secretaries, police,
chefs, etc. We will never succeed in sending every student to college.

The people making the decisions that affect the course of education are consistently not experts in the education. I have been a math teacher for over 15 years now from grades 6 - 12. I also believe that the primary reason kids drop out of high school is because they don't see the value in what they are doing. They don't succeed in algebra because they have been rushed through the math curriculum. Algebra is not a stand alone class, it is the synthesis of all of those math concepts previously learned. Students learn at different rates and we need to allow that to happen. I feel like the powers that be just want to fit all students in to the same mold and some won't fit without being broken. We need to take care of all of our students and that takes a variety of approaches. One size fits all doesn't work any more in education. We need to rethink the system.

What happened to what we were supposed to learn in our Education Psychology and methods classes. Algebra would fall into the "abstract" development which reaches development ON AVERAGE around ages 12-13. That means that some will reach it earlier and others later than these ages. Children should be tested to determine if they are ready rather than the one size fits all (NCLB style) of just saying all 8th graders should take Algebra.

While on vacation, I happened across an 8th grade math book from the 50's. It would be considered "consumer math" by today's vernacular. It covered the basics of adding, subtracting, multiplying and division along with fractions and percentages. The last few chapters dealt with balancing a checkbook, the concept of supply and demand, the stock market, mortgages, even determining mpg for cars. Don't tell me this isn't useful or challenging curriculum and relevant whether one is college bound or not. Give our kids what they need when they need it.

Algebra I for all 8th graders is a great idea that we are not currently ready to implement. Most of us think of Algebra I as a very abstract high school math course with lots of theorems and proofs and not too many practical applications. Solving equations and the thinking process required to find and solve equations is becoming more and more important to the majority of citizens today. But many situations will need to change if 8th graders are to be successful with algebra. Middle school teachers teaching the class need the same strong background in math that high school math teachers have. Additionally, they need more experience with providing hands-on concrete experiences with this abstract subject (there are so many wonderful materials available for this today). They also need more experience with providing real world connections (y=mx + b is not part of a young teen's world!). Taught properly, algebra can be challenging, exciting, and empowering to middle school students. Taught as a tough, abstract, "get it the first time or we'll leave you behind" course, we can turn off another generation of students to math in general and all of the job possibilities that require higher math. Many elementary curriculums now devote time to algebraic thinking beginning in kindergarten and these students will be ready for an appropriate Algebra I class in 8th grade.

There are so many things wrong with forcing all 8th grade students to take algebra, and most have been pointed out by previous posters. I'd like to add what NCLB has done to our teaching pool, though. I'm sure that my school is fairly typical in that we have had some bad math teachers in recent years. They come very qualified--actual math majors. But they don't connect with kids and they don't seem to be able to research why their kids are having trouble with concepts. At the same time, we have some very successful math teachers who would not be hired today because of NCLB.
Additionally, anyone who has taught middle school math probably feels that they could take kids to new heights if they weren't spending so much time reteaching things that should have been learned at a younger age. Elementary math teachers are forced to teach standards that they know are too broad and too difficult for the age group that they teach. If they could teach basic concepts with simpler numbers to mastery instead, then maybe we could get somewhere with 8th grade algebra with many kids.

I agree with most comments here that 8th grade Algebra is a mistake. Unfortunately it is not our only mistake in education. First look for the reason to get Algebra down into the 8th grade. Our District is talking/doing this so more kids have chances at higher math like Calculus. How many need Calc?? They are also looking at pushing Algebra to 7th grade and Geometry to 8th grade. So kids have 2 high school credits (out of 3) before they get to HS??? I teach High School Math & Science. They are not prepared when they get to the 9th grade nor are they engaged in the standards based curriculum which does not leave a great deal of time for project based work.
I believe 8th grade Alge for all will lead to a higher dropout rate.

I am not sure about 8th grade Algebra or not,(both my sons took it, both ended up in Calculus their senior years)but I am tired of teachers and parents saying that if the kids are not interested in something, or if it is not "personally relevant" to them, we should rethink teaching it. As a teacher of 25 years, I have seen us (the academic staff) go from "what information/skills/personal enrichment/broadening concepts do kids need to be productive citizens" to "what do you think they will be interested in doing?" I wish we could reclaim our position as curriculum specialists with a critical eye to what kids will need and not salesmen who want to see what the kids are willing to "buy" from us.

We need to stop the mentality of "one size fits all". Not all 8th grade students are ready to take a rigorous course containing so much abstract material like Algebra. A step in the right direction would be to offer Algebra as a class to the students who are ready and willing to take on the challenge. "47% said classes were not interesting"

One thing I've learned through teaching 7th and 8th graders over the past 10 years is that young people in this age group like feel like they have some choice; they like to make decisions. It makes them feel less like children. It gives them a feeling of having some control over what's going on in their chaotic lives. Most middle schoolers really are ready to make decisions about the direction they wish to take their education. We need let them tell us what they need from us as educators. We can guide, but they should have a voice. None of them want to fail; we need to remember that.

As an educator, I would love to see every child graduate, but 100% is a difficult number (NCLB supporters, do you hear me?). First of all, parents MUST DO THEIR PART--be their parent, not their best friend! Provide for your child the best you can and get that kid to school, so we can do our jobs as teachers! "43% missed too many days to catch up"

The last time I checked, some things in life are simply out of our hands--"25% left to become parents", "22% left to take care of a relative". I won't get started on teen pregnancy, but consider the child who loses a parent and is forced to quit school to take care of younger siblings. "32% said they left to get a job"

I believe that we should offer challenging curriculum to our children at EVERY grade level! "45% entered high school poorly prepared by their earlier schooling"

Offer programs that support all aspects of child development in this crazy world in which we live. Our children need structure and support. They need people to believe in them and to encourage them to challenge themselves, to be unafraid of failing, to learn from their mistakes. "69% said they were not motivated to work hard"; "35% said they were failing"

The statistics in this article prove that we all need to take an active role in helping children find success. Child rearing is the responsiblity of everyone; remember the saying, "It takes a community to raise a child"? It's true. I am shocked to find out how many of our children--many of my students in the middle class subarb in which I live and teach--have suffered some type of abuse.

Protect our children from abuse.

Give our children a voice.

Trust our children, believe in them--TELL THEM YOU TRUST AND BELIEVE THEM!
Once trust is established, children will try harder to succeed if only to please you.

Allow them to fail, question them so they can consider what other choices could have helped them avoid failure. Avoid berating and belittling your children. Add to their self-esteem, not take away from it.

Guide them to learn from their mistakes.

Be a parent to your child.

Remember that we are a team--parent, child and teacher--we really do want thave the same goal--to see your child achieve success. The adverserial relationship between parents and the school system has to stop!

Listen to your child...your student. Remember that everyone struggles in this life. Take a 1 minute break from your struggles and listen, really listen to what that child is trying to say...

I agree, all students should be required to take algebra in the eighth grade. We have gone through at least two new cycles of adoption; we have had the standards in place for at least nine to ten years; we have held teachers accountable and principals have done many a walk through to monitor implementation of district pacing plans and textbook usage. Additionally the state has provided funds to train all teachers in use of the textbooks (AB 466/SB 472). Many districts have received MSP grant monies to train teachers in the content and pedagogy of mathematics. Many districts have employed math coaches to help newer teachers. I believe we are on the right track- we have a better prepared student population entering the middle school now. If we don't make algebra a requirement for eight graden now, then when?

Anthony has raised a huge concern about teacher quality and the ways in which effective instruction in math and science are delivered. Given our shortage of qualified math and science teachers, achieving any new standard in these subjects seems to be serendpitous at best. If you happen to have a quality math teacher in your school, good for you, but maybe not so good for other students who do not. Until this problem is resolved, algebra and most any other core subject requirements will fall short of their intended goal.

And what happens to teacher quality as we diversify the landscape of schools and their communities across the country? For example, rural schools are physically isolated, and although distance learning opportunties have mitigated accessibility to an array of courses, nothing can affect student learning like a highly qualified teacher. Same can be said for urban communities, or other districts that are deemed "high needs." Until we take effective steps to resolve the "teaching gap" across this country, should we expect the student achievement gap to continue to improve?
Attempting to make Algebra mandatory for all 8th graders is a noble goal. Ensuring that we provide high quality teachers in math/science is an essential one.

Algebra 1 should be taught to 8th grade students,if... the basic concepts are mastered in 7th grade, School should place math major teachers in 7th and 8th grade to teach the student the basic principle and how this is connected in real-life situation. Teachers should give an applied problem to every concept they teach,i.e., using multi- media presentation then give them group activities guided by the teacher. I am a teacher for almost 4 years now here in US and more years teaching in the Philippines and I noticed the style of teachers in every school I was assigned to teach differ. Some just gave the student a set of problems and let them finish it without explaining the basic concept so the students became confused and just leave the paper unanswered on their table.They lack oral communication about the basic concept including vocabulary of mathematics. If the teacher teaches well then the student can achieved better. The foundation to have a smart kids are primarily us,the teacher, the better input we applied then a better output will be achieved. Let the Math major teachers teach the math courses in middle school and High school. Let's try not to use calculators in middle school,let them memorize the multiplication table. Technology can be integrated using computer not calculators. Calculators can only be used in trigonometry, statistics and calculus. Therefore use of calculators should also be removed during the state test, if we really want our student achieved better in Mathematics especially in algebra which is the basic course for all Math subjects in High school.

I am a math educator who has taught students of all ages and abilities for the past 40 years, not only in UK but in US, UAE, India and various other countries. I have been heavily involved in teacher training in UK, US and India. I am constantly amazed at the expectations politicians have of high school students. Anyone who has worked with the full ability range in schools knows that all children neither can do math beyond the age of 14 years, nor need to!
All children need to be functionally numerate, to be able to do the mathematics required on a day to day basis at work and in leisure activities. They do not all need algebra, trigonometry, geometry and statistics/data handling. I estimate that no more than 30 per cent of the high school population benefit from such math and in the main, they are not sufficiently challenged and could do much more. There is no real evidence in the research literature to support the idea that learning math 'trains the mind' - such beliefs stem from the 19th century theory of formal disciplines and it is about time we realised that studying anything in depth is probably equally valuable.
What ALL students are most likely to gain benefit from is the opportunity to think in depth about something for much of their time. This is an essential, often undeveloped, skill that will serve them well both now and in the future.
In a survey I carried out among 1000 parents of international school students less than 4 per cent had any recourse in their careers to the math currently expected of high school graduates. Yes, they needed to calculate but usually routine tasks involving percentages, decimals, money, and measures. Let's acknowledge that in society we need all sorts of employees including bakers, plumbers, electricians, auto mechanics, farmers etc etc. and yes, we even need refuse collectors. Without these persons our society would not do very well, even if we have lots more scientists, lawyers, physicians, engineers etc etc.
The NCLB may have been borne of concern about low standards amongst US high school students as measured by PISA and PIRLS; in a similar manner concern is expressed in the UK about their school students' performance in national curriculum tests. However, neither UK nor US are tackling the source of the problem which is basically that the high school curriculum needs a radical overhaul. More attention needs to be given to thinking in depth (as opposed to remembering facts that can be checked out via the internet), problem solving, decision making, developing tenacity, working collaboratively and independently and most importantly developing a love of learning through success in what they do.

Prof. John Collins

I personally don't think that students should be forced to take Algebra because I have talked to many students and they are bored with school period. It doesn't matter what subject they are taking, they are just bored with how the classes are being taught. The NCLB has caused teachers to fly through the curriculum and some students fall behind. Students who are in honors classes will have no problems with taking Algebra as a required course. I work in an urban setting and most students are afraid of taking Algebra and they will drop out if made to take this course. We are to try and get them to the point so they can participate in taking honors classes period.

The vast majority of the population does not need any math skills beyond 7th grade. What they do need is to take 6th grade math at least three times, until they truly understand fractions, percents, proportions, basic geometry, basic probability and statistics, measurement, number sense, basic graph reading and creation.

What is sorely missing from the math standards is any notion of computer math. Students can get all the way through high school without knowing what a binary number is, how music and photos are stored and compressed, and how the Internet actually works. What is a Mbps? What is variable bit rate compression?

Drop the geometry proofs and simultaneous inequalities, and give them some useful skills that relate to the devices that they carry around in their pockets. (But first, master those fractions!)

Theoretically, I do believe in Algebra I for all students in 8th Grade. The research seems to support this notion. Practically, however, as I look at the landscape of students going from elementary into middle school, I know some of these students will most likely not be prepared to take algebra by Grade 8.

If our ultimate goal is to prepare students for algebra by Grade 8, we have to back up and ensure they’ve mastered the standards from Kindergarten on. Too often students have misconceptions or gaps in knowledge in the earlier grade levels which hinders them as they reach more advance mathematics. To start, we need to offer early safety nets for students by qualified teachers to repair misconceptions and gaps. These safety nets need to help students build conceptual math knowledge. At my elementary school we’ve found our solution with Mathematics Navigator which is taught four days a week for 60 minutes each day in the specific math strand that the student is lacking knowledge in. Our only problem always is generating the funds to pay the number of teachers we would need to truly meet the needs of every student, and to provide the students who do need it with transportation to and from school. Certainly, both these issues tie directly back to an always shrinking budget. We also integrated into our 5th grade math classes Hands on Algebra which guides students in conceptually understanding variables and solving equations. Through past successes, we are certain this helps students prepare for 8th grade algebra.

If we offer students these safety nets from the earliest of school years and we integrate algebraic concepts throughtout the elementary years, I feel confident that a large majority of students would be successful in Grade 8 algebra.

Would this be a big predictor of drop out rates? I doubt it. Children dropping out have more complex issues than academic achievement. Although, we must, as educators, start there, we must also build support systems that include community outreach programs aimed at providing them with as much after school time with positive role models and mentors as possible. If we tackle both of these barriers, we may begin to see a decline in drop out rates.

Requiring all students to take algebra in eighth grade is not going to solve the problem of student drop outs for many reasons already pointed out in previous posts. What I find interesting is that few, if any, of the commentaries appear to be written by elementary level teachers. Most of the solutions proposed are aimed at middle and high school reforms with little said about elementary school. As an elementary school teacher of many years experience in a large urban school district I believe that more focus should be placed at the elementary level.

For instance, chronic absenteeism begins in elementary school. I often have students who miss eighty days or more in a year. There are so many reasons for this absenteeism and none are being addressed. Yet the student continues to move through the system having missed most of the learning necessary at each grade level. By they time s/he gets to middle school attendance is pretty much his/her responsibility rather than the parents’. But the pattern has been set and the underlying causes have not been addressed. And the student is frustrated because s/he lacks knowledge and skills necessary to understand the grade level assigned.

In all my math ed. courses and workshops I am told that our teaching and student learning must begin with the concrete, followed by semi-abstract, and finally abstract. District pacing charts and text books give a nod to the concrete but the emphasis and the majority of class time is spent on the abstract. The result is that students don’t gain basic understanding of the concepts. Those who are good at memorizing are able to compute but don’t recognize glaring mistakes and are unable to use their knowledge of basic operations in real life situations.

Part of the reason so little time is spent on concepts in the concrete is that each year’s curriculum requires teaching too many concepts. There is no time for exploring or delving deeper into the concepts for better understanding.

If I am to believe what teachers say at lunch or meetings, teachers get frustrated with students who don’t get the one right answer. There are few teachers who say anything about learning from mistakes and how to help students do that. By the time students get to middle and high school those who didn’t get the one right answer have been beaten down, made to feel they will never or rarely answer correctly, rather than helped to figure out what they did right and where they went wrong. How would this attitude keep them in school?

Students who are struggling with math and other academics have no experience of success in school and no reason to feel they will ever belong there. Some of them might find success in music, art, drama or gym. But those classes have been eliminated for lack of funds and because they aren’t tested for AYP. Teachers are supposed to incorporate these into the general curriculum in elementary school but teachers who are not trained in art (for example) generally resort to cookie cutter projects with no opportunities for creativity or learning of real art skills or concepts. Those students who are creative, who may be students struggling with academics, are often reprimanded for coloring outside the lines or using the “wrong” color or not putting it together according to the directions. So, again, they are encouraged to feel that they can’t do anything right in school.

This all begins in elementary school. It’s hard to change children’s attitudes once they are there. This is not to advocate for after school programs. I think the change needs to come in the regular school day. It means reducing the number of skills and concepts required each year in favor of more in depth exploration of each concept. It means bringing back art, music, drama and gym with well-qualified teachers in those areas and giving those classes as much emphasis as we now place on core academics. It means getting well-qualified administrators into the classrooms to observe and insure that teachers are using methods of teaching and relating to students that support all of them. It means reducing class size so teachers can do it. It means attaching more well-qualified social workers, psychologists and nurses to each school with access to social agencies that can and will help families solve the problems that keep their children away from school.

None of that should end when a student moves from elementary to middle and on to high school. This is what is needed at all levels. But it must start at the beginning of a child’s school career.

I agree w/Prof Collins in that all students do not need what we generally refer to as a 'college prep' math curriculum, but to speak otherwise smacks of historical 'tracking' which had/has deleterious effects, including highly inequitable access to learning, among other negatives. But does everyone need Alg I? Not being a math teacher, I am not clear on what the full Alg I curriculum looks like, and perhaps that needs to be talked about? I do know that all students (all people) need to be challenged and taught to THINK rigorously---and relevantly, and we need to acknowledge the value & dignity of all forms of work, else some forms of work become even more marginalized. Overhauling the high school curriculum is a terrifying thought, but maybe we need to rethink what all students should 'know' and be able to do; should we consider that by combining the various forms of educational styles, needs, and transformative possibilities for delivery, that each student could actually have a highly individualized education plan, built around a core of common knowledge? Such an effort will take a great deal of courage and, yes, rigorous and relevant thought. As others have mentioned, there are powerful ways to achieve this, including masterful teachers, professional development that is relevant and ongoing, technology, and administrators dedicated to support the learning community.

Where do I begin...there were so many comments to which some I agree and some I disagree. Should Algebra be taken in 8th grade? It really depends on the student and where they are. I teach math, but I'm certified as an elementary teacher grades 1-8 and just placed to teach math. I've taught math for about 4 years now and all I've done to 8th graders is try to get them over the phobia of mathematics.

I don't think all math majors can get the information to students without having any background in education or some type of education courses. They know the math, but teaching it to young minds is totally different.

I took Algebra I in 8th grade and went up to Calculus in HS, but I really don't need it. From what I see stundents (as stated before) need basic numeration before they can accomplish anything. I would get 8th graders that cannot multiply. What ever happened to memorizing your facts?! In MD, the curricula is "a mile wide and an inch deep". I guess you can say that across the entire US. Too many skills to learn, but the student don't have time to master any of them Due to NCLB. We've become a test driven society. I believe in assessing students, but the way NCLB is set up...sets everyone up for failure.

My school didn't make AYP for the first time by .6%. It was the math that did it. We didn't have enough pass. I took my 8th graders for having 29% passing in 7th grade to 48.6% passing in 8th. I tried to explain to the 7th grade math teacher that they need basic math. (He's a math major)He teaches the MD curriculum; therefore not reaching the goal neede for success.

Now I stated that to say our kids just need to know how to perform basic skills in math; add, sub, mult, div, decimals, percents, proprotions, fractions, probability, measuring, telling time (on an analog clock), basic graphs (not y = mx + b), and maybe a few others. This is what they will encounter in everyday life. I feel the math needed for HS is Algebra I (can be taken in 8th grade if they have mastered basic math), Geometry, Algebra II, and any higher math if that student decides. If those classes aren't taken then other types of mathematics should be offered in its place like consumer math, business math, math for the technology that they use everyday. These can be incoporated in HS math for the students that choose not to take Geometry or Algebra II, I do believe that they should take Algebra I as a requirement, but supplement with the other types of math to prepare our children for the work force/real world experience.

I think the basis of students’ discontent with school is directly related to the fact that the world has changed dramatically over the past 100 years and schooling: curricula, delivery, assessment, etc. has changed at best modestly. Each year that passes the schools appear less relevant to students. Not only are the students adversely affected, but communities also pay the price, due to ill-prepared young citizens. The vast majority of educators, researchers of education and politicians are content with patching the existing completely obsolete system. These patches provide no long term, fundamental improvement. An Algebra requirement for 8th graders is a patch.
If we built an education system for young people today, from scratch, what would it look like? Certainly some things might look as they do today, but I think most would look dramatically different.
I left a career of 12 years in software companies followed by 6 years in management consulting to teach. I will start my fourth year at a public high school this fall. I love it, and would love to take part in updating it, but I find little appetite for such an effort. One process could be to define what schooling should be in five years, and then execute a transformation to make that happen in 15 years, we will then be 10 years behind and not the current 100 years we are today. I can’t think of anything the United States could do to better ensure it continues its success as a country.
Here find one opinion from a guy with much less experience and formal education in education than probably everyone else replying to this post. So help me, what I am missing? Thanks.

Prof Collin and Scott and others, I am so glad to hear someone finally say it: algebra is not necessary to the vast majority of people who graduate from HS who go on to have fruitful lives.

I have taught algebra I to 8th graders of super-motivated parents in a low SES district on the peninsula. The kids proved their skills with the old Golden State Exam. We had a wonderful pass rate for those kids. They wanted to be challenged, they were, they enjoyed it and reaped the acknowledgement of their achievements. It was fun for all of us! I can't imagine how horrible this would have been if we'd made all 8th graders do this. They simply aren't all ready for it.

Now, I teach the CAHSEE math prep class at my HS. This is for kids who have already failed it from 1 - 4 times. As we struggle through problems and examples, I repeatedly come to the question: why do they need to know this to move on with their lives? Especially since they don't know their basic math facts yet. It is absolute torture for them. Yet, many come every day to try, try again. I so admire their persistence, yet I also completely empathize when one gives up and checks out. How can I blame him/her?

In the end, not all kids are the same. Treating them that way is harmful. Equality is NOT equity!

And please let's not all forget that a 24% drop out rate is pretty good historically. Who are the crazy people who believe it ever was much lower than that? As I say to my kids, the only one in "Grease" who probably graduated was Sandy. But Kenickie and Rizzo could get decent-paying jobs somewhere in town back then. That has changed. As the work world has changed, so must our schools. Requiring algebra for all 8th graders is not the change that is necessary.

42% of African-American kids are expected to drop out. 30% of Latinos, Something is up here and it's not going to be solved by forcing kids into algebra I.

I agree with most of the comments. I especially agree with "it starts in elementary school." I teach fifth grade. Students need to have the basics down before they can even think of attempting Algebra I. Our students aren't stupid and our teachers aren't either, but I do see that having a less experienced teacher in the classroom could be a problem. The reality is that if the students don't have fractions and the multiplication facts mastered, then it won't matter if the teacher is experienced or not. The students will fall behind.

The problem lies with the amount of standards, (In California there are at least 30 standards for each subject-language arts, math, social studies, science, technology, etc.), and the complexity of some of them, that are expected to be taught AND mastered BEFORE the end of the school year. (In California students are tested in April or May. School doesn't "get out" until the middle of June. Students should be tested on the last year's standards in October, not on this year's standards that they probably haven't completed.) Students are not given a chance to master the standards because there are so MANY to teach that teachers do not have much time to stop and make sure everyone gets it. I won't even get into the fact that many students are second language learners.

High standards are good. I want my son challenged, (He does go to a public school.) but I don't want him overwhelmed and ready to give up because of the pressure that is put upon every student in this state to be "proficient". When we were in school, teachers were expected to teach a FEW standards in every academic area (look at your old report cards). That gave them time to really make sure that every student was successful and those that needed extra help were able to get it because the teacher didn't have a pacing guide, principal, or district breathing down her neck about test scores.

In order to fix our public school problem, California needs to do four simple things.
1. Reevaluate the standards - not so many - less is better. Give me time to teach what is needed for success.
2. Holding teachers accountable is good. Holding students accountable as well is better. (If the test scores were used to retain students, or effected their grades, I think scores would go up dramatically. Right now the scores mean nothing to the students.)
3. Bring back the arts to elementary schools. Music, art, and dance gives students so much. So many of our students need a way to express themselves and escape from the reality of their lives. The arts allows that to happen.
4. Vocational skills need to be brought back into high school. Not everyone wants to go to college. We are still going to need mechanics, carpenters, plumbers, electricians, etc. Why is that a bad thing? I don't think money is the answer. We need to restructure what we have in place, and let people who are actually teaching in the classroom make some of the decisions.

Thanks to the many who have commented here. The practical suggestions and real-world knowledge of those commenting here provide solid evidence of the wisdom that resides within teachers.

Thanks to all who posted opinions above. I am a veteran teacher of 41 years who has been asked to teach Algebra I to all eighth grade students from inclusion to the most gifted. I believe I am better prepared to address the problems I will encounter this year, and to be able to anticipate those problems with greater accuracy. I love teaching the course, but regret that some of my students will be very frustrated by the subject because they lack the skills and abstraction that is necessary to be successful.

I am bookmarking this article and posts for future reference...or consolation, as the case may be!

I would be fascinated to hear further reports on your experience. I hope you will return to share with us.

Comments are now closed for this post.


Most Viewed On Teacher



Recent Comments