“Train A leaves the station at 3:05 p.m. and is traveling at a speed of 65 mph. If train B leaves the station at . . .” Did your blood pressure go up remembering these types of math problems? Latest research is showing that not all children are developmentally ready for algebra and that if a school has options, it’s wise to consider the choices. Some adolescents are, indeed, ready to tackle the abstract; others could use another year to grow. Why wait?
Brain Development and Abstract Reasoning
Linda Gojak from the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics says, “My experience, both as a student and as a teacher, leads me to believe that we do more harm than good by placing students in a formal algebra course before they are ready, and few students are truly ready to understand the important concepts of algebra before eighth grade. Many students should wait until ninth grade.” This is because an adolescent’s brain often hasn’t had time to develop in abstract reasoning yet.
Think of it this way: It’s somewhat like teaching a preschooler to tie shoelaces. You can show that child over and over, “All you have to do is . . . No! The loop goes around. No! Not like that. Look, all you have to do . . .” And they just don’t get it. Everyone else’s kid can tie their shoes. But not yours. Then, one morning, voila! They tie their shoes. What made the difference? Time.
Could success in math be that simple? Quite possibly. Studies show that many brains are just not ready for the abstract concepts of algebra until fourteen and sometimes fifteen years old. It has nothing to do with intelligence. It’s simply a matter of time.
A Key Characteristic of Success in Algebra is Maturity
Gojak continues, “a key characteristic of students who are successful in algebra, no matter when they take it, is a level of maturity.” (NCTM Summing Up December 3, 2013) And, as it turns out, “pushing kids into eighth-grade algebra hasn't helped. After exhaustive research, the Brookings study found that U.S. states that increased the percentage of students taking algebra in eighth grade were no more likely to see overall math achievement gains than other states.” (Deseret News)
Why isn’t my eighth grader successful with Algebra?
Algebra has procedural rules which must be followed exactly in order to get a correct answer--“line per line” to balance an equation. The problem is, many eighth graders are in a profound, “But WHY?” stage. This cannot be ignored. Logic-age students want to understand the whys and wherefores of a procedure. They are not likely to submit without a debate. This is a useful practice for other subjects, such as science or English, but it halts the process of algebra.
“Just follow the yellow brick road,” I sometimes tell my sixth graders. In other words, follow the procedure even if you don’t understand it now. Understanding will come down the road. But this goes against the grain of a middle schooler who has a propensity to question until they understand. Therefore, waiting until ninth grade when abstract visualization is easier just makes sense.
What would a non-Pre-Algebra track look like for my 7th grader?
A regular 7th grade math course, such as Saxon 8/7, combines the review of fractions, ratios, statistics, decimals, integers, and geometry with an introduction into complex applications: graphing inequalities, calculating probability, scientific measuring, geometric reasoning—it’s a full course load that is designed to strengthen math brain muscles in preparation for the abstract models in algebra. This is followed by Pre-Algebra in 8th grade where a student masters working with variables, balancing equations, and graphing integers. By the time they reach Algebra I in 9th grade they are truly ready for binomials and parabolas as well as graphing calculators.
How should the decision be made as to which math my child should take?
There are four indicators that can be used to determine which math course is right for your child:
1) a placement test
2) standardized test scores
3) current grades
4) and most importantly, teacher recommendation.
Talking to your child’s math teacher can give you a better understanding of your child’s timetable for pre-Algebra. Also helpful is just an honest conversation with your child about how they feel about math. If they need side-by-side help with homework on a pretty regular basis or if they are still shaky on arithmetic, they need the extra time to develop.
Will My Child Be Ready For College Math?
Won’t waiting on Algebra I until 9th grade prevent my child from completing important college preparatory math courses? Not at all. A high schooler will still have opportunity to take a pre-Calculus class in 12th grade. More importantly, their foundation in algebra will be well established, ensuring a greater level of success in each subsequent math course.
Professor Cheryl Lowe from Memoria Press, a classical educator warns, “Math is hard because it builds so relentlessly year after year through every year of the child’s education. Any skill not mastered one year will make work difficult the next year. It is unforgiving. It has to be overlearned.”
If a school has the option of two tracks, it may be a good move to examine the options. Don’t let pride get in the way of your decision. Moving at an accelerated pace may be what you desire (I mean, everyone else’s kids can tie their shoes), but is it a good fit for your child? In the long run, a solid foundation in algebra is what creates the long term success in higher mathematics.