Off the slow track

All Michigan high school students are expected to learn algebra, even if they enter ninth grade without basic math skills. The remedial track is being eliminated, reports the Detroit Free Press.

But many educators now say that in the changing economy, where low-skills jobs are disappearing, schools don’t have the luxury of going slow. All students, they say, must take rigorous classes in high school to prepare them for postsecondary work, whether it be a one-year certificate program, a two-year community college or a four-year university.

“If you’re putting them into a course that goes a little slower and easier and where the expectations are a little less, obviously every year they fall a little bit behind,” said Mike Yocum, director of learning services at Oakland Schools, the county’s intermediate school district.

Struggling students need extra help.

“The fact is that many of those kids don’t know their multiplication tables, don’t know their basic mathematical operations. Unless you make some provision for them to cross the bridge between what they know and what they’re supposed to know, it’s not going to work,” said David Plank, codirector of the Education Policy Institute at Michigan State University.

“Unless you’re willing to invest the time in catching them up, then this is just a recipe for further failure,” Plank said.

At Downtown College Prep, the charter school my book is about, all ninth graders take college-prep English and algebra; many also take Verbal Reasoning (remedial reading) and Numeracy. And most Numeracy students don’t pass algebra till their second (summer school), third (10th grade) or fourth (summer school) try.

About Joanne


  1. In Texas, this has been in place for several years now. The remedial track was eliminated over 5 years ago, and now with this year’s freshman class, all students will take Algebra I, Geometry, and Algebra II before graduation, even if they are not college bound.

    We have found a way around this – we offer what we called “Extended Algebra” – we teach the Algebra I curriculum but we go twice as slow to help the kids lacking basic math skills.

    I am of two minds with this. I just finished teaching an extended class yesterday (we are on accelerated block, so I get all new classes in the spring), and I will end up with about a 60-70% failure rate. Half of those failing are trying but lack the basic skills; the other half just don’t care and don’t try. Also I believe that my class was at least 60% ADHD – those tend to be the kids who have trouble staying focused enough to learn their math skills, and it makes for loads of fun when it comes to classroom management. Those who are trying are getting discouraged and may give up, those who aren’t trying probably never will, unless they grow up and realize that an education is important.

    In Texas, an elementary or middle school student may fail one core subject every year and still be promoted, so in my class of 9th graders I have kids who haven’t passed math since the 5th grade. With the TAKS test in place, eventually our classes will be stronger because this year’s 4th graders when they reach the 8th grade will not be promoted to 9th grade unless they pass the TAKS. So we dig in and keep plugging away until then.

    We think the extended program is helping more kids pass the TAKS they need to pass to graduate, but others are still not being successful. I guess we as teachers can’t help those who refuse our help.

  2. Jill,

    I wonder why they do extended Alg. I over two years instead of doing intensive basic and pre-algrebra skills in the first year and putting them in regular Alg. I the second year. Any thoughts?

  3. mike from oregon says:

    This article and what Jill mentions just seems like it’s destined for failure. I liken it to telling (not asking) a kid to write the next great American Novel (in english), when he/she doesn’t know how to spell and doesn’t know grammer. Chances of success are VERY, VERY low.

    At some point (preferrably early 1,2,3rd grade) someone needs to sit down and TEST to understand what level of the subject they are at. From there, there needs to be work expected and done to get them where they need to be and continued progress from there. You don’t put someone who can’t lift a 50lb. weight in a situation where they are expected to lift a 100 lb. weight – it’s stupid.

  4. Mike – In Texas we do test kids now, starting in 3rd grade. At 4th and 8th grade, if they do not pass, they are not promoted to the next grade. This is slowly being phased in, and when it reaches full infusion, it should clear up the problem, but until then, we make do with what we have.

    As to why we do not give a “prep course” and then Algebra – it’s because the state won’t let us teach anything below Algebra. We used to have a prep course like that – it was called Pre-Algebra, but it is no longer permitted.

  5. Jill,

    It’s sad that bureaucratic dictates keep your high schools from doing the logical thing, namely offering Pre-Algebra. This regulation of theirs is made all the more problematic when it’s considered that many kids will make it to HS without the necessary skills for Algebra I. I think Mike from Oregon gets it perfectly right with his “Great American Novel” analogy.

    In this case, the controllers, i.e. the state legislature, are too far away from what they’re controlling to see what the real pros and cons are. One more reason centralized control doesn’t work.

  6. ariztophanes says:


    It’s refreshing to hear that people in Texas are talking about what our math department here in rural Arizona talks about every day.

    I’m with Mike in that we need to work the kids from where they are, instead of expecting them to just jump right into Algebra — extended or not. We can offer Pre-Algebra, but a good number of kids aren’t ready for that, even.

    The most successful program I’ve seen is one where you pre-test kids and place them at the level they currently are operating at. If they needed fifth-grade math, they got it (Saxon style). Of course, the major criticism of this program was that it “hurts the kids’ self-esteem,” and so it was scrapped.