24 September 2008 09:47 AM

Preparing Students for Algebra Early

by Dr. Rick

The Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution tells us in a recent report what math teachers nationwide know from first-hand experience -- that lots of kids enrolled in middle school algebra are unprepared to learn algebraic concepts. Eight percent to be exact. These kids, the report says, have the math skills of second graders. Yikes!


There's been a ton of research about the teaching and learning of algebra, and that research has been accelerated recently with the growing emphasis of schools in enrolling students in upper-level math earlier and earlier.  Some say it's time to improve the quality of math teaching.  Some say there's not enough student responsibility in learning algebra.  There's probably some truth to both assertions.


Here's what the research -- and good old common sense -- tell us.  We learn math, especially algebra, because it's a perfect way to practice how to solve problems.  What career and whose life does not demand skillful and timely problem-solving today?  Every day, our lives and our jobs require reasoning, decision-making, applying knowledge and skills, and perseverance – all of which we learn from math (and many other subjects, admittedly).


How do we become experts at math skills?  The same way we become experts at any other skills, whether it's playing a musical instrument, throwing a football, swimming laps, making car repairs, baking a cake, or performing in a play.  We practice.


Practice is necessary in becoming an expert in algebra.  Practice with the rules, practice applying the rules, and practice with increasingly difficult problems.  This practice is part of the skills and attitudes we should insist our students learn from the earliest grades – before, even.  There's no sense in enrolling in algebra if a student has received mediocre instruction in and rushed through basic math, given short shrift to practice, and never bothered to build a solid foundation of understanding.  It's like building a house on a foundation of sand.  It won't stand.


We adults in students' lives -- parents, teachers, families, friends -- need to do a better job of presenting math to them.  Many of us are afraid of and dislike math, and our kids pick up on that fear and dislike.  Every time we bad mouth math ("I hated math in school!"), we're giving our kids permission to do the same.  ("I can't figure out this tip.  You do it.")  Instead, why don’t we show them how often we use math in our daily lives?  It's more than we acknowledge.


We also must ensure that our kids get the absolute best math instruction in school from the absolute best math teachers.  Let's encourage our best math students to consider becoming teachers.  Let's make it easier for professionals in math-related fields to join the teaching ranks.  Elementary and middle school teachers with a distaste for math have to get over it.  Parents who see their children struggling with math need to get help early for their kids before the problem gets even larger -- before it affects confidence as well as skills.


Our country has focused on reading and, more recently, writing, for many years now.  Good for us.  But, perhaps we've neglected the third "R" in our good intentions.  Time to set things right.


Add comment


  • Comment
  • Preview

Blog Posting Rules

This blog is for the good of education - for students, for teachers and for parents. I very much value a two-way communication with you and welcome and encourage your comments and feedback. However, to facilitate a constructive conversation that is beneficial to everyone in this online community, I expect the same respect in your comments that I present in my blog.

Read the full Dr. Rick Blog Posting Rules.