Algebra for kids who can't multiply

Eighth graders with second-grade math skills — they can’t multiply, divide or solve fraction or decimal problems — are being placed in algebra classes, says a Brookings report on The Misplaced Math Student. Some 29 percent of students in the lowest 10 percent are taking advanced math in eighth grade.

(Tom) Loveless, who directs Brookings’ Brown Center on Education Policy, estimates about 120,000 kids are inappropriately enrolled in classes that are supposed to level the playing field and too often don’t. “It’s really counterfeit equity,” he says, noting that the mismatch inordinately affects black, Hispanic and poor kids in urban schools.

Loveless wants to wait till ninth grade to teach algebra to students with a weak math foundation. But, if they’ve been passed along all these years without mastering elementary math, what suggests they’ll catch up in eighth grade?

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  1. The alternative, which I’ve heard discussed by well-meaning people who have seemed to bought into the substandard math curricula like Investigations and Everyday Math which is part of this problem, is to institute remediation classes in middle and high school to teach the students what they should have been taught in the earlier grades. Because these students are unfortunately viewed as defective goods, people who would otherwise hold direct instruction in disdain have no problem advocating these techniques for such classes.

  2. Counterfeit equity? Can’t he just say “wrong”?

  3. Well, when students don’t have a working knowledge of how to add, subtract, multiply, and divide (along with percentages and fractions), there is no way they can succeed in higher mathematics (it’s just not possible).

    The fact that 48% of advanced math students got this wrong is sad indeed (I did this problem in my head and got the correct answer), and the results on international math and science tests just seem to confirm how badly our kids do at math and science (the US is the only educational system in the industrialized world where our kids do worse the LONGER they are in school).

    In my opinion, the worst thing ever done by man was to make the cash register compute the change for the clerk (when I worked a cash register, you computed the change in your head, and counted it back to the customer), these days, the person behind the register is lucky to be able to hand you back the correct change at all.

    Sad indeed…

  4. This is so true! A group from our church tutors at the local high school – we have a lot of engineers, some retired, and even a retired high school math teacher (she’s old-school and completely exasperated by this). The biggest problem we face is trying to each algebra to kids who can’t do arithmetic. Even if we get them to understand the basic ‘formula’ of add/subtract from both sides, then multiply/divide to isolate x, they can’t actually do it…and forget them having any understanding of WHY you add/subtract from BOTH sides or that 4/5 x 5/4 = 1. We have a lot more success with elementary/middle school kids, since we’re mostly helping them with the basics.

  5. A subject near to my heart. When my older daughter was in 8th grade math, I helped the teachers evaluate the multiplcation facts of their students. I took each student out individually and tested them with multiplication cards through 12 x 12.

    Within reason, I was very nice if a student was having problems in particular areas, I would avoid similar multiplication cards as I went through as the purpose was simply to evaluate.

    The results were poor:

    The best students were ones that had taken classes outside our local school system or were educated in a foreign country.

    I saw lots of “skip” counting, I mean a lot.

    The bright spot I saw was with the average students in the 12x type problems. Take 12 x 8 for example. Many students would try and skip count and between being nervous, etc they couldn’t do it. I would then ask them, “What is 10 * 8?” and they would respond “80”. Then I’d ask “What is 2 * 8” and they would respond “16” and I would continue and “80 + 16” is??”… And for many I’d see this light bulb go off. They could then answer most of the rest of the 12x questions.

    This was not the advanced class, but I saw many students that had potential but simply had no confidence and were totally confused by the way the school system had tried to teach them math.

    Fortunately, over the last few years, the local situation has improved substantially. The Middle School principal has put a lot of pressure on the feeder elementary school and the students are entering MS much better prepared. Thanks Everyday Math, not to mention the local school district.

  6. At my middle school in Los Angeles, everyone is placed in Algebra or Pre-Algebra in 8th grade. When I tutored some 7th grade kids last year, many could not do some basic things like add/subtract/multiply/divide. Many students have a double english class (No elective) due to their problems, but there is no double Math class. We have Saturday school and summer school, but many of the kids who need those classes don’t go.

    We did an 8th grade AVID algebra support class last year from 7am-8am 5 days a week. For many of these kids, they finally got stuff when they should have learned 5 years ago and they understood WHY you do certain things. ALL of those kids improved their Math scores on the state test from 7th-8th grade.

  7. Algebra is the abstraction/generalization of arithmetic. So “Algebra” as we call it in high school is a culmination of the math students have been learning throughout school. So I prefer to say that students who don’t know enough algebra by the time they reach high school “Algebra” will have a tough time getting through the class.

  8. I think most kids can be caught up in a year or two with a lot of work. A LOT of work, though. When our elementary started using “Everyday Math” for my 3rd child, I thought it was going to take 2 years at home, in middle school, with an “old fashioned” math program (we chose Saxon) to catch her up in math and prepare her for algebra. It actually didn’t take that long. It was a real struggle that first year, but by the end of 6th grade she was caught up and by mid 7th she had mastered the pre-algebra material. And she is not a “math-minded” individual like my older two.

  9. pm has it. algebra can begin in kindergarten, and should, period. All math skills are abstract, once you leave one-on-one correspondence counting, and to “save” the “Algebra” for a designated grade is to infuse the subject with undeserved mystery and unnecessary terror. Most of beginning algebra’s abstractions are best introduced with physical manipulatives, like balance beams and blocks, and that type of kinesthetic method is not something you’re likely to find in middle and high school classrooms.

  10. Bill,

    In one of my summer jobs, the cash register would only take a total, so we had to add up the order in our head, tell the customer what he/she owed, ring up the total, and then make change.

    Fortunately the menu was limited: hot dogs, coneys, doubles (hot dog, coney or mixed), soda, premium beer, and ordinary beer.

    It was still a fun challenge, and not every worker was able to handle it.

  11. Independent George says:

    I keep thinking of the Derek Zoolander Center For Kids Who Can’t Read Good And Wanna Learn To Do Other Stuff Good Too.

  12. Why can’t our elementary schools teach basic math?

    I think that is the question to be asked.

    As a parent of elementary students, my answer would be:

    1) The teachers don’t know (i.e., incompentent personnel)

    2) The teachers can’t teach (i.e., awash in Ed School “methodologies” that gained a generation of Ph.D.s but went nowhere)

    3) No demand that teachers teach and students learn before promotion (for BOTH entities.

    4) Misc. curricula taking place of the 3 ‘Rs. (i.e., instead of reading, writing and arithmatic, we think schools have to teach character development, tolerance, etc.)

    There is no excuse for the lack of understanding of basic (and I mean BASIC) math, english, grammar other than a lack of compentent teachers and a lack of focus on the fundamentals. No Excuse.

  13. CJ it’s not really a new problem-a quick dig back shows us that kids weren’t learning basic math skills as early as twenty years ago. I’d suggest that all four of your listed reasons apply to this problem-and have for a long time, especially as calculators moved from colleges, to high schools, down to grade schools in some areas. Math is a skill, if you don’t use it, you lose it.

  14. Try teaching how to calculate pH using logarithms in a chemistry class to students who don’t have basic math skills!

  15. This.

    This is why I teach middle school math – the remedial kids.

    Well, this and you get way more ‘lightbulb moments’ with these kids!

  16. In most schools, you cannot take chemistry I w/out at least a grade of C or better in Algebra I (though with grade inflation it’s more like a D or F grade in real life).

    You cannot succeed in chemistry or physics without a solid background in algebra (simply NOT possible).

  17. I don’t know which teachers cj is thinking of, but I know we try to use every possible method to reach the students in my district. It is an uphill struggle.

    First, there are those whose families actually oppose intervention and attempts to assist (see the gang family thread). Second, there are also many of these kids who have no idea how to count when they enter kindergarten, and who have spent many hours watching videos instead of learning how to learn from a caring caregiver. Third, the all important preschool years are often totally free of academic learning (numbers, colors, alphabet, etc.). You would be amazed at the number of kids who have no foundation when they enter kindergarten.

    The state standards for California introduce “algebra” in Kindergarten using sorting and classifying. In first grade, students are supposed to use basic addition and subtraction “number sentences”. Second grade students are supposed to tackle simple word problems and charts. They are also supposed to learn the commutative and associative rules. By third grade, they are supposed to be used to the idea of using equations. In fourth, they are supposed to be introduced to unknowns and learn how to use parentheses to change the order of operations. In fifth, they are expected to create function tables, derive equations, and plot the results on coordinate planes. If they actually do these things, they are ready for middle school math. (Look at the site under standards to read the math standards.)

    The textbooks adopted in some districts fail to support these state standards, because they were created before the standards were written and they are not yet up for replacement in the textbook purchase cycle. Teachers are expected to teach the standards, but they may have no materials to use to do so. Those materials are expensive to purchase, and time consuming to produce from scratch. Between dealing with the frustration of families who actively resist education, the cost of purchasing materials on a teacher’s salary, and the lack of time to make materials to support students, a teacher may well wind up just using the textbook out of desperation.

    Requiring all students to take Algebra at the middle school level without also providing support materials for elementary teachers is crazy. Districts tell teachers to create “centers” for math to address the needs of students, but the materials for the centers are not provided. It is very frustrating, expensive, and exhausting to try to fill the gap between the standards and the available support materials. I know I just finished analyzing my class’ performance, and my room needs centers for fourteen different math topics ranging from basic addition to advanced work. I am lucky. I have parent volunteers this year who will help out by supervising the centers when the kids use them. That lets me do the actual teaching, rather than policing behavior. Whole class instruction isn’t adequate for the needs of the kids.

    If you have the time or the money, please identify an elementary school where you can volunteer to help make or purchase materials for math centers. If you are a parent with young kids and have the time, ask the teacher if you can help manage a set of centers during math time.