Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Algebra I sometimes starts as early as sixth grade: new challenges for math teachers

Schools are accelerating math education, sometimes introducing Algebra I as early as sixth grade. It has become almost standard for eighth grade, and is somewhat common in seventh. I found this to be the case when I was subbing a couple years ago.

I took Algebra I in Ninth Grade, the last year of what was then Junior High School, in 1957-1958. In the beginning it seemed easy, but became more difficult as the school year progressed. It was demanding not to make careless errors on tests and classworks. In fact, the teacher was notorious for her “classworks” which were often 10-problem quizzes, but she would discount the lowest grades on these. I didn’t find word problems (“story problems”) difficult, but what did take a lot of practice and maturity as factoring and polynomial long division. I don’t know why this was hard at first. But math in “senior high school” was a breeze: Plane Geometry in 10th grade, Algebra II in 11th, Solid geometry and trigonometry in 12th. Now, this can be bumped up a couple years, and an enterprising kid can have two years of calculus (including differential equations) before starting college, with plenty of “tuition free” AP credits.

There seems to be something in math education that relates to the biological growth of the brain. It sounds like a good subject for research. There is a certain level of maturity required in learning to think in abstraction. Perhaps other subjects help develop this capability more quickly, especially foreign languages and music. Stronger abstract thinking should lead to better critical thinking about social situations and relationships, and greater prudence in other modern-world activities like Internet use and driving motor vehicles (better grasp of possible consequences).

All of this means something more. Education students preparing to teach Algebra I may need to be prepared to handle younger students than in the past, and may need a deeper set of classroom management and child relationship skills than in the days that I went to secondary and high school.

The Washington Post story June 4 is “Accelerated Math Adds Up to a Division Over Merits,” p A1, story by Daniel De Vise, link here.

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