The Dumbing Down of Algebra
by C.F. Navarro, Ph.D.
Until a few years ago most public school students took general or business math. Only college-bound students took algebra, and because the subject required a certain degree of intellectual maturity, it wasn't offered until the ninth grade. Today high school students here in Virginia and in other states throughout America are required to take algebra. Only those with serious learning disabilities are exempt. For high achievers who wish to surge ahead of the pack, the subject is offered as early as the seventh grade.
Now one would assume that the powers-that-be who made algebra mandatory had solid evidence that students today are better prepared in mathematics than those of generations past. But no such evidence, solid or otherwise, exists. On the contrary, as math tests scores over the last 50 years show, students today are not nearly as well prepared. Classmates of mine at the rural public school I attended in the 1950's had on the average a much better grasp of mathematics than most of the public school students I work with in Alexandria.
At the George Washington Middle school where I taught eight-grade math in 1998, only a few of my math students were at grade level. The rest were at a fourth-grade level, or lower. Most had not yet learned their multiplication tables and were still counting with their fingers. By the end of the year some had progressed to about a fifth-grade level, a substantial improvement, but far short of the comprehension and skills required for algebra. Nonetheless, all were required to register for algebra the following year.
More troublesome still was my algebra class. The students in that class were all nice kids, mainly from middle-class families and, therefore, on the school's "talented and gifted," program. Yet, with few exceptions, they didn't know how to work with fractions, decimals or integers. They lacked the power of concentration to set up and solve multiple-step problems. They were incapable of manipulating symbols and reasoning in abstract terms. Like most of my general math students, some had not yet learned their multiplication tables and were still counting with their fingers. All had been issued graphing calculators (a terrible mistake) and led to believe that algebra consisted simply of pushing buttons and getting the right answers.
A parent who blamed his daughter's inability to learn algebra on my poor teaching skills and insensitivity, dropped by regularly to remind me that the girl was just a child, and he was right. Intellectually and emotionally the girl and her classmates were still children. Given another year or two to mature and learn their basic math, most would have mastered algebra and gone on to higher mathematics without much trouble. But as it turned out, all they got from their premature exposure to algebra was a lot of stress. Some, I suspect, will hate math as long as they live.
The education establishment, however, is not wont to give up a bad idea. If it cannot bring the kids up to algebra, then it will bring algebra down to the kids. Algebra teachers in the early grades are instructed to make the subject fun--not intellectually enjoyable, but entertainingly fun. I recall having to attend a workshop on how to teach equations with toy-like chips that looked very much like the manipulatives used in kindergarten. On another occasion, a higher-up called me to her office to tell me that my students would learn algebra a lot better if I decorated my classroom with pictures of celebrities. Seems that the graphs and formulas I had put on the walls weren't entertaining enough.
Algebra, furthermore, has been broken up into easier-to-digest parts. High school students who can't hack Algebra in one year, the normal time, now can study it at a slower pace by taking Algebra I Part 1 one year and Algebra I Part 2 the following year. At one school I recently saw a stack of "Algebra 1/2" books, which leads me to suspect that soon Algebra I Part 1 will also be broken down into smaller parts. But no matter how much the subject is fragmented and, in the process, dumbed down; no mattter how many how-to-teach- algebra workshops high school teaches are forced to take, students unprepared for the subject are not going to learn it.
Standard of Learning (SOL) algebra scores in Alexandria may have improved smewhat over the past three years, but only because teachers are under strict orders to teach to the tests, and because test-takers are allowed to use graphing calculators. The Algebra SOL, in fact, is more of a test of graphing calculator skills than of alegbra comprehension. Ask our algebra students an old-fashioned word problem--like the ones about trains travelling at different rates of speed going past each other--and most couldn't begin to solve it.
The early algebra and algebra-for-all program in our public schools looks great on paper. It gives the impression that our local kids have finally caught up with their counterparts in Japan and Norway. But in truth, they are just as far behind as ever.