Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Early Algebra: Crushing Kids

Some states want to get all their students to take Algebra by the end of grade 8. The idea is that this will provide equal access to challenging curricula.

The Washington Post's Jay Matthews discussed the issue in Recalculating The 8th-Grade Algebra Rush and the original report is available here: The Misplaced Math Student: Lost in Eighth-Grade Algebra.

I'm a fan of Algebra and a fan of helping as many students as possible master it, but I am not a fan of aggressive time lines for when it has to get done. Pushing all 8th or even 9th graders into Algebra is a problem. Kids who are not ready for Algebra would be better served by shoring up their math foundations. They need number sense, especially when it comes to decimals and fractions. Students who are pushed into Algebra before they are ready are doomed to fail and are probably doomed to hate math forever. I don't want them to take silly math classes that lack any rigor, but I don't want to throw them into classes for which they are not prepared.

At the other end of the spectrum, there is also a push to get good math students to take Algebra in seventh grade or even earlier. Not every kid is ready for Algebra in eighth grade. Very, very few kids should be taking Algebra before eighth grade. If a kid is that good at math, why not provide a more rich mathematical curriculum for the kid instead of just having them rip through the same old courses more quickly?

As you might imagine, my reaction to the title of Jill Barshay's article in the Hechinger Report: Gifted classes may not help talented students move ahead faster was a resounding "good!"

Some of my issues with the "hurry up and go fast" approach to gifted math education:

  1. I have heard SO many stories of kids who took Algebra in seventh grade and ended up losing interest before their senior year. This is anecdotal, so I need to find solid data.
  2. There is solid evidence to support the existence of the Protege Effect: Students who teach their peers deepen their own understanding of skills and concepts. Many parents of precocious students complain that their kids are being held back and doing the teacher's work, but those peer teaching experiences are deepening both students' knowledge.
  3. Teachers at every level complain about students who have zoomed through prerequisites without really understanding everything they need to understand to prepare for later study. For almost all students, that zoom through leaves gaps.
  4. Emphasizing extrinsic outcomes can quash student motivation and long-term interest. Being accelerated can be one of those extrinsic outcomes that push students for a while at the cost of  their own intrinsic motivations to learn.

As Barshay indicates:
"... Research points to the lack of consensus on what the goals of gifted education should be. Many don’t think it should be about advancing students as quickly as possible. High quality instruction that helps kids who’ve already mastered the basics go deeper into the material may ultimately be beneficial. And annual state assessments may not do a good job of measuring this kind of depth, creativity or critical thinking."
Algebra is a good thing. I value its abstraction and generalization and problem solving, but let's make sure that the kids who take it have the right foundation and that it really drives deep learning and affection for math.

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