Higher Math in Lower Grades: Hurting or Helping Kids?
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Every parent wants to see her child keep up with peers, and these days that means taking algebra in the eighth grade. But sometimes we forget that algebra is a very demanding course, full of sophisticated and abstract ideas. Do students really need to take this higher math course in lower grades, or can it do them more harm than good?
There are two sides to the issue. Politicians like the idea of offering algebra in middle school. They argue that the world has sped up over the past generation; technology has gotten more complicated, ideas more complex. Why not introduce harder concepts at younger ages? In 2008, California lawmakers began a campaign to make algebra mandatory for eighth-graders, a shift that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger compared to President John F. Kennedy's pledge to put a man on the moon.
Meanwhile, many researchers believe that middle school students aren’t ready for algebra. In a 2008 letter to the editor of The Ventura County Star, Professor of Education Dr. Bruce Mitchell argued against California’s proposal. His letter referenced the studies of Dr. Herman Epstein, who believed that the human brain has rapid growth periods and plateau periods where no growth seems to take place. For most students, the middle school years occur during a plateau stage, and Epstein argued that "the plateau stages were not optimal times for the introduction of new higher-level thought processes, particularly algebra, which eighth-grade students fail more than any other subject. Historically, algebra has been most often offered in grades 10 though 12. That occurs during the age 14-17 growth-spurt stage, when it's OK to teach abstract reasoning concepts.”
After listening to these two sides, parents are forced to make a choice: trust the politicians who claim that our children need to take algebra at younger ages, or the researchers who think that our children need to wait. It can be hard to figure out the right path for your child.
To get some answers from a hands-on expert, I spoke with award-winning high school math teacher, Jerry Brodkey. Dr. Brodkey has a PhD from Stanford in Mathematics and Curriculum Education, and has taught math for thirty-one years. He had some definite opinions about the move to teach algebra at younger and younger ages.
The “normal” track for math classes has shifted down in the past ten years.
When Dr. Brodkey began teaching, the normal track was for students to take Algebra I in ninth grade, followed by three years of college-prep math. This worked well for most students, and there was always a way for a select group of students to get ahead by taking algebra in eighth grade and advance to Calculus by their senior year. But in the past ten years, Dr. Brodkey has seen “an explosion of students taking algebra in the eighth grade. In the past five years, I’d call it a super-explosion.” The normal track in many schools now has students taking algebra in the eighth grade.