Q. Our son has been struggling with algebra all year.
He does his math homework regularly, but he does badly on his quizzes and tests and we don't know why.
We are considering private tutoring but don't know how to find the right person. A. Math probably distresses more schoolchildren than any other subject, and algebra distresses them most of all, because it is so unforgiving.
A middle school student may not recognize an intransitive verb, but still will like to write haiku and read Matt Christopher, and a high school student may doze through the Revolutionary War, but still be fascinated by the battles of Antietam and Gettysburg.
Algebra, however, builds on itself and every unlearned lesson sinks students a little deeper in the swamp. Like your son, they decide that they're terrible in algebra and then they say, "I HATE math!" But that's just a code for "I hate to feel dumb!"
It may be too late for your son to pull up his grades this year, but he should be tutored this summer and in the early months of Algebra 2, so he can catch up, and so he can think better of math and of himself. He not only has much to learn, he probably needs a new way of learning, since algebra is often taught too soon or it's taught all wrong.
A 12-year-old can do pre-algebra if he uses the new hands-on methods to find concrete answers to the problems, but he can't answer abstract questions until he can think well in abstractions, however bright he is or how well he does in other subjects.
Studies show that 75 percent of youngsters between 10 and 15 can't understand formulas and symbolic thinking because they still can't reason logically -- an ability that improves dramatically when the brain takes great leaps forward around 12, 15 and 18 1/2.
Your son also may need tutoring if his teacher understands algebra better than she can explain it, or if she only teaches to one learning style. All children learn best by doing, but when they can't do that, they have favorite ways to take in information. Some learn more easily by reading, some by listening, and some by moving around while they study, but if the teacher doesn't address your son's learning style, he'll always have trouble learning algebra.
Math also may be a little harder for your son if he is better in language or music or movement or spatial reasoning than in math and logic, since the brain has a number of discrete pockets of strength and no child is equally good in all of them. And neither are his parents. Your son will respond better if you encourage his efforts more than his grades.
You also need to tell your son to ask his teacher for extra help before or after school. If he doesn't do that, she may not know that he needs help, especially since he turns in his homework every day.
Also, talk to your son about his future, because some teenagers won't learn a subject unless they have a good reason for it.
He may never go into higher math or do quadratic equations before breakfast, but he needs to know that algebra is as important as biology, chemistry, literature, geography, history and Spanish. Every subject he encounters will help him define himself better and give him more choices in life and they also will make him smarter. Studies show that intelligence grows or shrinks, depending on whether it is fed.
To find a good tutor, look around for the most successful algebra students you know and then ask their teacher to help you find a tutor who relates well to teenagers, knows his material and uses hands-on methods to teach it.
To find out how children think, from birth through adolescence, read the illuminating, superbly written book "Magic Trees of the Mind," by Marian Diamond and Janet Hopson (Dutton, $24.95), and to help your son understand algebra in a concrete way, give him a copy of "Hands-On Algebra," by Frances Thompson (Prentice Hall, $28.95). You BOTH can learn a lot from it. Questions may be sent to P.O. Box 15310, Washington D.C. 20003 or to email@example.com