The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Is the nation’s math instruction in crisis?

My recent column on the controversy over letting eighth-graders take algebra brought a torrent of anguished comments from parents and other experts who think math instruction is in crisis. This is a major frustration point in America. Many of these curriculum war veterans have interesting, and often contradictory, recommendations.

Many are puzzled about why the Common Core State Standards, the nation’s latest educational fashion, seem to advise against the popular policy of letting kids take algebra a year earlier than usual. It is all pretty confusing.

Delaying algebra to high school, per Common Core, might be a miscalculation

John Fourkas, both a parent and a University of Maryland chemistry professor, said much of the Common Core-based math curriculum seems to him “completely disjointed, focusing too much on specialized vocabulary.” He said there is “not enough repetition of key skills as new topics are introduced.”

“Our son has had the misfortune of being on the leading edge of the reform, and so every year there is a new curriculum with which the teachers are not familiar,” Fourkas said. “Our son is in Algebra 2 this year, and I give them great credit for learning from their mistakes and designing a curriculum that is far more coherent.”

The Common Core standards don’t suggest banning algebra in eighth grade, but they instead urge schools to use a Common Core eighth-grade math course designed to make everyone ready for high school math, including the traditional ninth-grade algebra course.

Washington-area districts, where often more than half of eighth-graders take algebra, are mostly ignoring this part of the Common Core plan, but elsewhere many districts are saying no to eighth-grade algebra, except for a few advanced students.

Carolyn Simpson, member of the school board in a district east of Seattle, said she was one of 600 parents petitioning her own board to open a path to eighth-grade algebra for the children of any parents who wanted it. But the majority of the board said no.

Elynn Simons has been tutoring students in the Washington area for 20 years. One of the reasons eighth-grade algebra is popular in the region, she said, is the advantage that acceleration brings to the college-admissions process. “If a student takes algebra in eighth grade, followed by geometry in ninth and Algebra 2 as a sophomore, they stand a chance of doing their best on the ACT and/or SAT second semester of their junior year,” she said.

Still, adjusting to algebra is difficult for many. Hugh Haskell, a retired math teacher, said he found even some of his gifted students had trouble with the abstract reasoning required for algebra. More attention to those concepts in seventh grade may improve the eighth-grade algebra experience, he said.

Waiting until ninth grade for algebra does not appeal to Timothy Barnum. He said he got his doctorate in engineering in part because he forced himself to struggle with theoretical concepts even though his resulting grades were low. “The earlier students are exposed to more advanced math even if they don’t do well, the better chance they have of progressing faster, competing and succeeding in college engineering,” he said.

For some parents, acceleration can go too far. The mother of a child at Longfellow Middle School in Fairfax County said, “Parents there push hard for algebra in seventh grade if not earlier.”

Amy Brodie, another Northern Virginia parent, said her sixth-grader scored high on a placement test and was invited into seventh-grade algebra. After the parents discussed this with their son, they declined the offer. “We are concerned it could be detrimental,” Brodie said. “Is the seventh-grade brain ready for that?”

I would say many of them are, but each child and each family is different. They should all have their say. That means, in part, that the Common Core should not stand in the way of eighth-graders who want to start high school math early.