by Stuart Singer, The Teacher Leader
In September of 1968, as I prepared to face my first Algebra 1 class, an administrator told me the following, “Since you are the first new math teacher in the building in four years we are giving you all of the students that failed Algebra 1 last year. By doing that it makes the master schedule easier.” He then added, “By the way, more kids at this school fail Algebra 1 than any other course.” And then there was the closer. “Heck that is true not only at this school but in the entire district and for that matter the country”.
Sadly, though the need for success in high school math is even more imperative in our increasingly technical world, it appears little has changed in terms of the pitfalls associated with this gateway mathematical course. When taught with the rigor necessary to adequately prepare students for the courses that follow, students continue to struggle. One of the most common prescriptions given by educational leaders is to move the course earlier in a student’s career. My last post revealed a number of statistics that indicated the shortcomings inherent in such an approach. Now I would like to look at the potential damage that can be experienced both directly and indirectly to students placed prematurely into Algebra 1.
Increasing the number of students taking Algebra 1 in the eighth grade will lead to certain expected outcomes. As this proportion expands there will be a corresponding rise in the number of students taking the class in the seventh grade. In my former district from 2005 to 2008 there was a 600% increase (120 to over 700) in seventh grade Algebra I students. While unquestionably there are some students ready for this level of advancement, the danger for any students misplaced in this group is catastrophic. Follow the natural progression for such a student. Honors Geometry is taken in the eighth grade and then in their first year at the high school these students are enrolled in Honors Algebra 2. The biggest obstacle to overcome here may not be the actual math material. The larger concern is that they have learned their first two years of high school math academically isolated in the middle school. In their first high school math class, Honors Algebra 2, most of the students will be sophomores who, for the most part, while taking their second high school honors math class, have also experienced a full year of Honors English 9, Honors World History 1, and Honors Biology or Chemistry – courses that are unavailable to middle school students. For students who were advanced through the math sequence too quickly, and not simultaneously taking other honors courses, the sudden surge of academic rigor is too often crushing.
On track to nowhere
Another group of students who will suffer academic problems as a result of the rush to push more and more students ahead in the math sequence are those few individuals who are deemed unable to be advanced in such a manner. With the ever enlarging percentage of students taking Algebra 1 prior to high school, this small but critical group of students is being isolated into an academic niche from which there is little chance of escape. While all educators decry the concept of tracking, these students languish further and further behind the mainstream and soon define that principle. Many of these students are struggling with English, have special needs or are dealing with emotional or physical problems. Consequently, while the vast majority of students, ready or not, are being pushed into a faster and in many cases inappropriate track, these students are truly left behind, sitting in class with no positive peer role models for academic success, little rigor to improve their classroom skills and the obvious and sometimes irreversible label of being an unsuccessful student.
The teacher’s perspective
When is the best time for enrolling students in Algebra 1? Fundamentally it is a common sense solution devoid of percentage goals, rhetoric and the blind belief that faster is better for everyone. Algebra 1 should be offered to those students who demonstrate the mental and emotional maturity, curriculum background and basic skills necessary for true success in a rigorous, first-year Algebra course. For a significant number of our students that readiness occurs in the eighth grade. For a very small part of that group it may well be appropriate even earlier. But Honors Algebra 1 must be a tough, legitimate course worthy of its label. For those who are not placed in these classes the courses taught in middle schools should be honed with increased rigor to prepare these students for mastery of the subject in grade nine. Equally important is that students who do take Algebra 1 early but do not demonstrate total mastery of the course should repeat it again the following year to ensure that they will have an opportunity for success in the future. Ironically, moving students faster and promoting them without a solid foundation in the fundamentals ultimately forces subsequent math classes to be less comprehensive and challenging.
Clearly this result could not be the given objective of the school system’s policy-makers.