Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Should High School start in Ninth Grade? What makes math so hard?

When I went to school, we had “junior high school” comprising grades seven to nine. At some point, perhaps in the 1980s, school systems starting putting ninth grade back into high school, and then often setting up “middle school” of grades six to eight as the transition zone. Even in elementary schools, systems have experimented with moving students from one classroom to another for specialized subject matter like art or science.

However, in lower income school districts, passing ninth grade is a big problem for many students. The Metro section of the Washington Post today (p B1) has a story by Nelson Hernandez “Fixing the Freshman Factor: Prince George’s Schools Focus on 9th Grade, Which 1 in 4 Kids Flunked Last Year”, link here.

At the same time, by the time they are seniors, many students have passed required exams in algebra, biology, English and government. Some of that material they should have gotten in ninth grade.

Some schools try to soften the landing in high school by setting up separate classrooms and bell schedules with shorter classes, with 90 minute “Red” and “Blue” days of alternating schedules starting in tenth grade.

My own maturity level increased substantially between ninth and tenth grades. In junior high school, we combined English and social studies in what we called “general education.” I recall a term paper in the Ninth Grade “My place in the world of work.” In tenth grade, they meant business, giving final exams (three hours) for the first time. Report cards and grades came out every nine weeks instead of every six weeks. In tenth grade, the most notable subject matter transition was in English class, which alternating sequences of “grammar” and “literature.” The first “literature” unit was hard, reading Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, with two tests spaced over the four weeks that it took. (I remember having to name the eight parts of the Elizabethean theater, including the proscenium doors! On the final, I think we had to analyze Mark Antony’s motives.)

I also remember that math got much easier. Algebra I, even in Ninth Grade (the earliest that it was offered in the 1950s) seemed hard as the year progressed (the factoring, the long division). But in tenth grade Plane Geometry was a snap (once you understood what a syllogistic proof means) and Algebra II seemed so much easier in 11th. Why? Simple maturity. Math gets easier with repeated practice. (So does piano, which I took.) The way to teach math is to give lots of confidence building homework and pop quizzes, starting with the easiest or simplest problems and progressing into staged complexity where the student has to learn to put things together and “connect the dots”. You need the volume of work and the mental agility. It becomes part of you.

Remember in the WB/CWTV series "Smallville" Clark starts Smallville High as an awkward teen in Ninth Grade (when he is "supposed" to be 14 but already knows how to give Lex CPR). Schoolwork never seems to be an issue for Clark.

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