Surprise! Early algebra doesn’t help weak students

Hold on to your hats: Low-performing students don’t learn much from middle-school algebra according to new research. From Ed Week:

Separate studies of urban middle schoolers in California and in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg, N.C., schools suggest that placing struggling math students in algebra class does not improve their test performance on state math tests, and significantly hurts their grade point averages and the likelihood of their taking and passing higher math courses in high school.

Algebra is a gateway course to college, so reformers have pushed students to take it as soon as possible. Some 31 percent of students take algebra in eighth grade compared to 16 percent in 1990 to 2007. California’s standards call for students to learn algebra in eighth grade: 54 percent take the course, though many have to repeat it in ninth grade. And sometimes tenth and 11th.

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  1. Mark Roulo says:

    The Duke study, the first results of which were released as a working paper in January by the National Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research, based in Washington, found that the achievement of students accelerated into algebra who had performed in the lowest 20 percent of 6th grade math tests declined by a full standard deviation in Algebra 1 end-of-course tests. Those students were 46 percent less likely to pass Algebra 1 by 10th grade.


    “For whatever reason, their preparation or their confidence wasn’t sufficient to let them do well on it, and it knocked them back on their heels,” he said.

    If I read this correctly, then the kids who weren’t doing very well on the concepts upon which Algebra builds (e.g. fractions) did worse if they took Algebra than if they took another year to work on those foundational concepts.

    It is almost as if not mastering the prerequisites predicts poor performance. Who knew?

  2. You know, it is almost like math classes build on one another, and understanding basic information is necessary to understand more complex manipluations.

  3. wahoofive says:

    The failure of logic here is astounding: “We want more students to have taken algebra by the time they finish high school, so we’ll try to get them to take it in middle school.” In what universe could that possibly work?

    The commenters above are right: in most cases these students don’t know fractions, percents, arithmetic with negative numbers, or, in many cases, basic multiplication tables.

    • California Teacher says:

      Absolutely. I see that weakness in high school students all the time. I’m not even a math teacher. I’m a language teacher interested in cross-curricular connections and numeracy, and I see a lot of students that don’t even know the basics.

  4. Charles R. Williams says:

    These students haven’t mastered middle school math and this fact is papered over. The damage far exceeds the effect on these students GPA. The basic algebra course is watered down which results in lower math achievement for students who are prepared for algebra.

  5. Math is not like a treatment that can be administered; it’s more like an exercise program where you have to begin at the lower levels and work your way up through instruction and effort. You can’t skip levels or move through them any faster than your body (or mind) will allow.

  6. Roger Sweeny says:

    Legislators have this ridiculous idea that teachers can teach anything to anyone.

    It’s a good thing that the ed schools and our teachers unions continually correct them.

    Oh, wait…

  7. Oh, but don’t you know – we can “scaffold” that MINOR information within the context of the lesson, of course, without negatively impacting the rest of the class, who IS ready for Algebra!

    Or, so I was told by one of those “raise your expectations for OUR (hint, not MY race) children” people.

    Never mind that I do believe that they CAN learn the math, just that they haven’t, so far.

    It’s a wonder all math and science teachers aren’t bald.

  8. JADiggins says:

    My son took alegebra as an 8th grader – he is a strong math student – taking and getting an A in AP calculus as a senior, but this course was taught in the “discovery” method now in vogue among middle schools and he didn’t get through the same amount of content in that class as he would have if he had taken it in HS. We had to get him a tutor in Algebra II because he was missing foundational knowledge. We won’t be making the same mistake with his younger brother.

    • California Teacher says:

      What if his younger brother is a different kind of student?

    • I’m betting that he wasn’t the only kid being tutored, even if it was by parents. Schools/districts are happy to point to successful students but don’t want to know HOW they succeeded. The Kumon, Sylvan, parents and private tutor sector are one of the elephants in the room. Students are being cheated by flawed curricula like Everyday Math and comparable weak MS curricula; their lack of math facts and procedural knowledge is papered over (trust the spiral)until they hit pre-algebra and algebra, at which time it’s too late for most to catch up. Then, it’s poverty, lack of parental involvement, lack of effort and/or “just not good at math” that explains their inability to “get” algebra.

  9. Ted Craig says:

    Our school district is moving Algebra back to the 9th grade, where it was when I went through the same schools. It’s too late for my oldest daughter, but at least my other two kids will be spared.

    As my eldest struggled through the eighth grade, a veteran math teacher told me something crucial to the debate: most students’ studies are about biology, not algebra. The hormonal overload in most middle school brains keeps them from grasping the abstract concepts of high math.

    Of course, the Everyday Mathematics at the elementary level probably doesn’t help.

    • There are plenty of American kids who are ready for algebra in 6th or 7th grade and more who are ready in 8th. Kids in high-performing countries do this regularly. Poor curriculum and instruction in ES-MS compound the problem, and I think the MS model is flawed; too much focus on emotions and not enough on academics encourages the worst aspects of adolescence. Of course, it should be accepted that some kids will not be prepared for algebra until HS and some will never be able to learn it because they are cognitively incapable of abstraction. The one-size-fits-all approach to education serves few kids well.

    • Asian and European countries by and large have their students begin algebra 1 in 7th grade (they have “integrated” math so it’s not all done in a single year). I’m not buying that their teens have significant biological differences than Asian-American and European-American teens here. What is different is a stronger curriculum K-6.

  10. Mark Roulo says:

    As my eldest struggled through the eighth grade, a veteran math teacher told me something crucial to the debate: most students’ studies are about biology, not algebra. The hormonal overload in most middle school brains keeps them from grasping the abstract concepts of high math.

    I see this claim a lot.

    But most of Asia (including Japan, China, and Singapore) and Europe (Russia, Holland, …) typically teach algebra in the 7th grade.

    Why are only US kids hormones preventing them from grasping the abstract concepts of higher math?

    • Because the US kids have the misfortune to have (1) the MS focus on emotions over academics, (2) flawed curricula that do not ensure mastery of essential knowledge and skills, as opposed to strong curricula like Singapore Math and traditional algegra and geometry, (3) ineffective and inefficient groupwork and discovery learning, as opposed to being explicitly taught the material by a knowledgeable teacher.