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California algebra rule highlights basic math difficulties

Any of us who have ever been in a math classroom know that too many kids lack fundamental arithmetic skills. It is extraordinarily difficult to teach students more advanced skills when their ability to manipulate fractions or even multiply and divide quickly is compromised.

Any of us who have ever been in a math classroom know that too many kids lack fundamental arithmetic skills. It is extraordinarily difficult to teach students more advanced skills when their ability to manipulate fractions or even multiply and divide quickly is compromised. So-called automaticity is critical to successful math education, yet schools, particularly in the States, continue to move kids forward even when their arithmetic skills are lacking (and trust me, most of their arithmetic skills are sorely lacking).

A new policy in California requires students to be enrolled in an algebra class by the 8th grade, according to the LA Times. Unfortunately, the rule, which goes into effect in 2011, is largely unfunded and does not provide a remediation path. Citing a study from the Brookings Institution, the article notes,

Nationwide, more students are taking algebra than before. Over five years, the percentage of eighth-graders in advanced math -- algebra or higher -- went up by more than one-third. In total, about 37% of all U.S. students took advanced math in 2005, the most recent year in the analysis...Yet some 120,000 of these students -- about 8% -- are scoring in the lowest 10% on the eighth-grade National Assessment of Educational Progress. Many thousands more are performing well below grade level.

Meaning that too many kids who are woefully unprepared are taking algebra too early (or conversely, that we are not preparing kids early or well enough for algebra). The idea of taking algebra earlier is a fine one and the article also cites statistics suggesting that early algebra enrollment is associated with generally improved educational prospects. However, these improved prospects are badly confounded by socioeconomic factors. Poor ethnic minorities are far less likely to take algebra by the 8th grade and to do well when they get there.

Mandating 8th grade algebra is hardly the answer here. Fundamentally changing the way math is taught throughout primary school is. Want to give kids more standardized tests? Make sure you include serious arithmetic components early on. Waiting until 8th grade algebra to remediate in basic math when fundamental weaknesses are exposed in the classroom is hardly the answer.