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Pushing Algebra

September 22nd, 2008

Today I was going to write about market stabilization, moral hazard, and top bracket taxation… or maybe I was finally going to say something about Sarah Palin… or maybe just a quick post about Nginx to follow up on my much maligned posting from some months ago. But all of that is going to have to take a back seat because today’s Washington Post has brought to my attention a new crises in American schools… the rush to teach algebra.

First, a bit about my experience with math. I was privately schooled through seventh grade, where I excelled in math… and a good thing to, because I was awful at spelling at the time… for that matter, I still am awful at spelling. When I transfered to public school in 8th grade I was placed in a remedial math class, which is to say it was behind what was traditionally taught to 8th graders and even more behind what was taught in the advanced 8th grade math class. After a few weeks of acing every test and answering every question in class, I was given an aptitude test where I did well enough to advance not just to the traditional class, not just to the advanced 8th grade class, but all the way to the advanced 9th grade class… the highest level of math offered at my junior high. (I often wonder why this test was not administered before school even started…)

I chose to go into the advance 8th grade class (quit frankly, I was having enough social integration issues as it was, the last thing I needed to do was take a math class with a bunch of folks a grade above me). This began my journey through public school math. As I said, I was good at math, and got either As or high Bs in Algebra I and Geometry (which I eventually became a 9th grader). I also did quite well in Algebra II / Trigonometry in 10th grade. But by 11th grade the ranks of advanced math were getting pretty thin. We still had enough students to support two full classes of advanced math, but that was down from four full classes at the junior high level. 11th grade advanced math, known as Pre-Calculus, changed everything. This class was extraordinarily challenging. In the one class I can truthfully say I always did my homework and always studied for tests, I also received the only C in my entire high school career. The number of people competing for valedictorian dropped to one, and the eventual saluditorian would only be eligible because she was not even at Woodinville High School in 11th grade to have her GPA washed up against the rocks like the rest of us. In 12th grade I excelled once again, getting straight As through Calculus and doing very well on the practice AP tests (though I never actually took them).

The point of retelling this story is that I was good at math, one of the best in my class of 400 or so students, and yet even I struggled through the Algebra to Calculus track that one begins by taking Algebra in 8th grade. Students who took Algebra in 9th grade, which was the norm at my school, had a much easier time and a more gradual progression into advanced mathematics. So I’m left wondering why, in God’s name, are we pushing algebra on every 8th grade student? Is this some new arbitrary standard we have decided to push because it sounds catchy? Has anyone figured out what we are going to do with all of these students when they get to Calculus, having left a trail of Cs behind them? I’m all for having a system that pushes students to excel, but math is a foundation based learning experience, and advanced math in junior high and high school requires
mastery of advanced math in elementary, not happy wishes and talk of the “new civil right.”

Seriously folks, America has always resisted tracks as anathema to our egalitarian sense of education, and I generally agree. But the response shouldn’t be an arbitrary decision that this particular level of math is right for everyone just because it makes for good headlines.

probonogeek Politics

  1. ethan.john
    September 23rd, 2008 at 01:49 | #1

    Maths are important! People need to know the word cosecant!

    Math is taught incredibly poorly in the US, mostly owing to the insane insistence that everyone needs to know a certain “level” of math by the time they graduate high school. What is a “level” of math? Can someone define it for me?

    The real tragedy is that the way we teach math also removes all the discovery from it, all the interest, and leaves people with this odd feeling that math is “hard” — somehow harder than things like history or English. Gah what minds we might have wasted on the foolish teaching of two-column proofs!

    (This from someone that didn’t have to take Calculus 1, 2, or 3, or Linear Algebra (matrix algebra) at the UW, having completed them before he left high school.)

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