Pushing students to the next level of math before they are ready is endemic in schools across the country, Welsh writes.

When summer school opened July 9 at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, Va., where I teach, remedial courses in math had more students than any other subject.

That is because of the high failure rate not only in math courses, but also on the state’s standard of learning exams in math. The summer school pattern is similar in most high schools around the country, where kids will be trying to learn the math they never figured out during the year.

I worry that we’re pushing many kids to grasp math at higher levels before they are ready. When they struggle, they begin to dread math, and eventually we lose thousands of students who could be the scientists and engineers of tomorrow. If we held back and took more time to ground them in the basics, we could turn them on to math.

The experience of T.C. Williams teacher Gary Thomas, a West Point graduate who retired from the Army Corps of Engineers as a colonel, is emblematic of the problem. This year, Thomas had many students placed in his Algebra II class who slid by with D’s in Algebra I, failed the state’s Algebra I exam, and were clueless when it came to the most basic pre-requisites for his course. “They get overwhelmed. Eventually they give up,” Thomas says.

English and social studies teachers face the same problem when school officials, more interested in boasting about the numbers of kids in higher-level courses than in what they really learn, place students without the requisite skills in advanced placement classes.

Push to younger students

Pushing students to the next level of math before they are ready is endemic in schools across the country, and is most pronounced in the move to have younger and younger children take algebra.

The National Center for Education Statistics reports that from 1990 to 2007, the percentage of eighth-graders taking algebra went from 16 percent to 31 percent. California has been in the forefront of pushing kids into algebra: By 2009, 54 percent of its eighth-graders were taking algebra, the result of an initiative by California’s State Board of Education. Why the early push? It’s driven by the fact that some younger students wanted, and were capable of, more challenging math. But that’s not true for all students.

My colleague Sally Miller has taught almost every high school math offering. She lives and breathes her subject, but she is the first to warn that too much math too soon is counterproductive. When Miller asked one of her geometry classes what 8 x 4 was, no one could come up with the answer without going to a calculator. “In the lower grades, more time has to be devoted to practicing basic computational skills so that they are internalized and eventually come naturally.”

Miller, like every math teacher I talked to, says schools are pushing too many middle-school kids into algebra. “Many of the concepts in algebra are abstract,” Miller says, “and if children are not developmentally ready to deal with abstraction, you can turn them off to math forever. Even the best students who can pull off A’s in eighth-grade algebra by just memorizing eventually end up realizing they did not really learn it.”

Confidence undermined

A Duke University study of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school district’s attempt to have algebra taught in eighth grade echoes what Miller says. Duke professor Charles Clotfelter, who led the study, concluded that the district’s policy “had a negative effect on most students, especially those students who weren’t stellar in math background. … For whatever reason, their preparation or their confidence wasn’t sufficient to let them do well … and it knocked them back on their heels.”