Why Do Students Not Do Well in Algebra?

I am on a mailing list and received this:

Why Students Struggle with Algebra and How Schools Are Helping
When: Tuesday, February 10th at 1pm Eastern time.
Free registration is now open at: http://edweek.org/go/algebra

One of the biggest challenges in K-12 education today is how to help students overcome their struggles in introductory algebra. Many students fail or are barely able to keep up in their first algebra course, typically taught in 8th or 9th grade. In response, state and school district officials are trying to solve this problem in several ways, such as by encouraging better teacher preparation, including an emphasis on algebra, and by revamping courses and curricula to help struggling students, such as through the creation of "algebra readiness" classes aimed at girding students for the challenges of that class. In addition, policymakers at all levels have called for an improved, more streamlined approach to teaching elementary and middle-grades math as a way of preparing students for algebra.

This webinar will bring together a number of experts who have examined students' experiences with algebra. One of the goals is to explore the fundamental question: Why do so many students find algebra so difficult? The webinar will then examine efforts by districts and private curriculum-developers to help these students. It will also touch on major developments at the national level in this area, such as the release last year of a report of the National Math Advisory Panel, which called for more coherent math curricula at early grades as a foundation for algebra.

About the Guests:

Jon R. Star, Educational psychologist and assistant professor of education Harvard University.

Mary Jo Tavormina, Elementary Mathematics Manager, Chicago Public Schools.

Jesch Reyes, Math specialist, former algebra teacher, Chicago Public Schools.


Josh Hayes said…
I find this an interesting question for two anecdotal reasons:

1) My son, at the time in 4th grade, took an algebra class. He learned about the nature of the "equals" sign, how to move things back and forth across it, simplify, solve for x -- in fourth grade! I was amazed at how much he learned in just nine weeks or so. Maybe one solution is to tackle some of the basics at an earlier age?

2) I took my first real algebra class in seventh grade and it was an epiphany. The beauty of simultaneous equations -- it was like scales fell from my eyes, and I found myself stealing time in other classes to make up algebra problems to solve. Yes, I'm a geek, but I'm not a mathematician. The point is, algebra CAN be intensely rewarding, at least for some kids, especially if it's taught with the thrill of discovery always hovering in the wings.
dan dempsey said…
If you do not know much arithmetic, Algebra will be difficult.

If one has not become fiends with:

1/4 + 7/8 = 9/8 = 1 1/8

then a/b + c/d = ????

will be difficult.

The SPS math leadership continues a de-emphasis of arithmetic despite their talk of Arithmetic Fluency.


Maybe it is time to actually heed the National Math Advisory Panel recommendations. Look at Pittsburgh's de-emphasis of Everyday Math and Connected Math Project:



Perhaps the SPS could employ practices that are shown to produce achievement, that would make learning algebra easier. [Example based instruction is about the only best practice that actually is a best practice ... The Math Education professionals are often the equivalent of Snake Oil salesmen.] More likely the SPS with the coming math adoption at the high school level will just adopt a text series that has very little algebra.

Our previous top finalist IMP (Interactive Math Program) delayed teaching the distributive property until grade 10 ... that is at best a seventh grade math topic.
a(b+c) = ab + bc

Instead of the CAO being Obama like and saying "I screwed Up" ( along with the school board ), we see an unwavering allegiance to "Fidelity of Implementation" to Everyday Math.
So much so, that the State Math Standards posted as mini grade level math expectations on the SPS website are ignored in favor of the Everyday Math pacing plan.
Authentic Algebra as recommended in the National Math Advisory Panel report may not even be seen in Seattle. It won't be difficult because it won't be attempted.

The title of the NMAP report is "Foundations for Success"
Try the following link to see if this looks like a laser like focus on a reduction in topics at each grade level.

Dorothy Neville said…
Josh, was that "Hands On Equations" that your son did? It's commonly used for homeschooling and especially for gifted kids at an early age.

With all my complaining about Lowell, one good thing that did happen is that my son's fifth grade teacher, mostly not very strong in the math she was supposed to teach, did a unit of Hands On Equations and my son loved it. Some of the kids were starving for this as indicated by the fact that he ended up teaching it to friends on the bus who had different teachers.

However, the teacher didn't maintain it because --- well, she said that too many of the kids weren't getting it, weren't ready for the abstraction. A friend with a child in a different fifth grade asked that teacher if they did Hands On Equations as well and was told "no, that material is targeted to fourth graders."

Those few weeks were a watershed for my son. The beginning of a sense of accomplishment in math, the beginning of the end of him hating and fearing math. (Homeschooling him for math in 6th grade completed the turnaround.)

As to the discussion of algebra, Dan, you probably know that this issue predates Reform Math. I taught high school math in the 80s and this was a perennial topic. When are kids ready for algebra and how can we prepare them? I agree that it has probably gotten worse though, with reform math. So, what is another source of the problem?

Elementary school teachers love kids, most have patience for them, love literature and helping kids read, but do not have deep love and appreciation for math. Some do not even fully understand arithmetic and are afraid of math themselves. Maybe that's the difference between us and Singapore? The fact that the Singapore teachers all are highly trained in math?
dan dempsey said…
The State Math standards require division with two digit divisors in Grade 5.

Look here:


You will find no division mentioned at any grade level k-5 for Everyday math.
dan dempsey said…

There are several differences between us and Singapore that is for sure.

Asian math curricula are developed over time and make incremental changes to improve efficacy. In contrast the popular programs in the USA ... TERC/Investigations and Everyday Math are not developed from successful origins. In fact their use continues despite their failure to bring success. (Except success to Publishing House's bottom lines)

The USA stands largely alone in their allegiance to Reform math. The SPS seems wedded to Philosophy and chooses to ignore results.

Japan began a thrust to be more USA like in math with their 2002 Standards. These changes were abandon because they did not work. Japan is now largely back to the 1992 math standards.

The SPS is all about politics and unfortunately currently ignores many students needs in math. Driven by the UW recommendations and an administrative structure with inadequate mathematical knowledge, Seattle has produced a decade of math chaos. Unfortunately this is continuing as National Math Advisory Panel recommendations are ignored, State Math Standards are ignored, and poor results are ignored.

Of course no one is ever held accountable ... and no change in direction is ever suggested.

Remember that the SPS math adoption Finalists include TERC/Investigations and EDM for elementary
Connected Math Project for Middle
Interactive Math Program for High School.

I have no idea when in adoption cylces anything but reform math texts made it to the final three.

It certainly was not for the last Middle School or the last Elementary School adoption. The last attempted High School adoption was all reform math.

Politics certainly trumps results in Seattle Math which explains the last decade in Seattle Math as the achievement gap continually grew despite the Board's emphasis on closing the achievement gap.

The last two math adoptions by a school board, that supposedly was interested in closing the achievement gap, were extremely ill advised. Now the School Board will continue to largely get the same advice and make a high school math adoption.

When kids know very little math k-8 thanks to extremely poor materials, it gets really difficult to try to fix this mess at grades 9-12.
hschinske said…
I don't think students spend half enough time working with factoring to primes and fractions. My daughter at Nova recently signed up for a math course called Infinity and Logic, which is supposed to be either a level three or a level four class (I assume that means the same general area as Integrated 3 or precalculus) depending on the background of the students. The first thing the teacher did was give a quiz on fractions. I can only assume he's previously been forced to review operations with fractions for students who were not prepared.

Helen Schinske
Dorothy Neville said…
Marginally related here, and related to the "what's a blog" post on the sharing of information: My son had a Sub in Chemistry on Tuesday, no Chemistry on Wed due to early dismissal. On Wed he looked for the Math Chair and found out he had a Sub. Word in the halls was that both teachers (and more from the Math Department?) were gone both days, downtown to read Math Texts.

His Chemistry teacher is a fine teacher and I hear from students that he's also a very good math teacher. The RHS Math Chair is awesome. My son had Mr Christensen for Integrated 3 in Summer Stretch and he said he was the best math teacher he'd ever had. Given that both his RHS Int 2 and his current PreCalc teacher are quite good, that's saying a lot.

If only we could be assured that these gentlemen have clout with the adoption committee. I have no idea if they do.
WenD said…
Dan: Why is SPS ignoring state math standards? Also, not knowing the full history of why EM i.e. Chicago Math, is so popular, what's their main selling point? We're in the Northshore district. Their adoption of EM was based on the argument that it raises test scores.
Central Mom said…
This is a one-off to this discussion, but I'd like to point to an NYT article today which talks about providing "rigor to the middle portion" of students in the classroom. It's about the pros and cons of opening advanced classes up to mid-achievement kids. Given all the discussion on this blog about APP and Spectrum programs and placement, perhaps Melissa would like to post it for a separate discussion item.

dan dempsey said…
Dear WenG,

EDM popularity is based on a large sales staff. There were three EDM sales reps at the Student Learning Committee meeting just observing. The reps present statistics as if they are actually meaningful. For example: if you looked at Seattle's 5th grade Math WASL scores from Spring 2007 to Spring 2008 you would notice that WASL pass rate improved from 63.2% to 66.4%. This rise of 3.2 would be mentioned as a positive as if the shift to Everyday Math produced this. There would be no mention of the fact that the state increased 1.5% or that there was an enormous increase in class instructional time. The idea that this rise of 3.2% was produced by the curriculum just is not a statistically valid conclusion (no controls on other variables ... like the increase was due to increased instructional time).

When Seattle adopted EDM ... Rosalind Wise presented results from Central Valley Special Ed math and from South Whidby. She presented them as if they were just random selections. The board thought they were looking at random selections. If fact these were cherry-picked they were the best in the state of all EDM users.

Ms. Wise presented Data from NYC as if all NYC schools had adopted EDM. A large number of NYC schools were not part of the EDM implementation.

The EDM + Connected Math k-8 package had been used in Denver and was producing extremely poor results .... of course this was never mentioned by anyone but me and the Rocky Mountain News in April 2007.

Seattle at the EDM adoption had the principal of Green Lake testifying about what a wonderful program EDM was and how it really improved things at Green Lake school. There was never any Green Lake data presented ... guess what? .. it wasn't very good.

There was a letter from lots of principal's who supported the Everyday Math Adoption ... so if these principal's were not piloting EDM ... why the enthusiasm? were these principals all math experts? ... or were they part of the support downtown so I can add another fuzzy political feather in my cap?

Remember EDM and Connected were on the OSPI list of materials very aligned to the WASL ... highly recommended. This was a political game run by OSPI math hucksters. All part of the NSF math grant fiascos.

Like I said this is all about looking good politically and has nothing to do with actually selecting a decent curriculum. If it did ... we would actually have a process that in some way .... used the intelligent application of relevant statistics to improve our school system by selecting appropriate textbooks for math.
dan dempsey said…
Dear Dorothy,

Mr Royce Christiansen has vigorously opposed the reform math agenda. Take a look at the Math texts in use at Roosevelt.

A really large problem is the math decision makers were CAO Carla Santorno, Director of Instruction Linda Hoste, and Math Program manager Rosalind Wise. None of these are capable of teaching an upper division high school math class. Despite the departure of Ms. Hoste and Ms. Wise, the knowledge of math Downtown has not really improved.

The people who actually understand mathematics are teaching in Seattle High Schools ... but they do not make the decisions. Instead we make sure that all stakeholders are represented (knowledge of mathematics is not a requirement)...
Richard P. Feynman once said the idea that more people on a selection committee will make the result better is flawed. A small committee that actually are experts is what is needed (that sure is not the Seattle plan).
... are there any experts at this? how would we know? where is the evidence?

Downtown is still talking about best practices. There are hardly any best practices in math, if a best practice produces significant results. Thanks to SPS action we may be able to compile a worst practices list if we look over the last decade.

The only thing mentioned in the National Math Advisory Panel report was that example based instruction tended to give postive results. The NMAP report specifically mentioned that there are few best practices in math. The SPS is still talking about best practices ... likely left over ideas from 10 years of chaos.

Most of the High School math professionals ... ignore the nonsense from Downtown.

This is not to say that there isn't a group who are great followers of everyword that comes out of UW. Check the Clevelnad data ... no I do not think that UW has a clue. National Science Foundation grants have produced a lot of our current mess. But to be in the in-crowd better support the National Council of Teachers of mathematics (NCTM) and the opinions pushed by the NSF.

Were did this get us???
PISA International tests for math of 15 year olds, which originated in Europe but are now given globally shows the USA as the worst English Speaking country tested. The only sizable industrialized power that we score above is Italy.

I am sure there are several Barney Frank's and Chrisopher Dodd's behind the Math meltdown. But how long is the SPS going to stupidly continue playing this game?
dan dempsey said…
Explaining how we got to where we are now....

From the Betrayed Blog:

The sad state of K-12 math instruction appears to be intentional. In 1997, public policy organization Public Agenda found that, of 900 professors of education, 86% believed it was more important for aspiring teachers to “struggle with the process of finding the right answers than knowing the right answer” (“Professors,” 1997). Fifty-seven percent thought that children who used calculators from the beginning would have better problem-solving skills. Just 55% would require high-school graduates to demonstrate proficiency in “spelling, grammar, and punctuation.” Sixty percent wanted “less emphasis on memorization” in the classroom.

Fast-forward 11 years to 2008. A report from the National Council on Teacher Quality said that elementary-school teachers are now ill prepared to teach math to their students, having received insufficient instruction in math while they were in college (Zuckerbrod, 2008).
WenD said…
Dan: Thanks for the info. Re: our EDM experience, my youngest child's teacher seems to be quietly dropping the EDM timeline for her 5th grade class. Lo and behold, youngest is doing division for fun now that's she's mastered it, something I never thought I'd see when she was crying over it 3 months ago.
dan dempsey said…
Dear WenG,

Nice to hear.

Please don't tell anyone that departing from "Fidelity of Implementation" to EDM is a good idea or you may be burned at the stake as a heretic.
ParentofThree said…
FYI, lots going on right now with highschool math adoption. Would love to know what the three top choices are currently....

February 5 (8:00 AM – 3:00 PM)
@ JS Center Rm. 2778 Committee Meeting #5: CORE only (grades 9 – 11); narrow to top three choices; schedule and plan for site visits

February 10 (8:00 AM – 3:00 PM)
@ JS Center Rm. 2778 Committee Meeting #5: ADVANCED only (Pre-Calculus, AP courses); narrow to top three choices; schedule and plan for site visits

February 9 – 27
@ JS Center Public Review; site visits by committee members; student focus group

February 9 – March 12 Comprehensive screening (done individually by committee members)
Jet City mom said…
my older daughter was first exposed to algebra concepts in 1st grade in a blended classroom-
she has learning disabilties that impact processing, but she took algebra in 8th, pre calc in 11th and calc & Ochem in college.
her elementary school also is paired with Thurgood Marshall & UW to work with students and teachers in math
( from the oct 14, 2003 SeattleWeekly)
Thurgood Marshall is the kind of school that should fear the WASL, given the typical racial gap in performance. This school year, 95 percent of its students are minorities 62 percent African American. Nearly 70 percent qualify for free or subsidized lunches. When principal Ben Wright walked in the door four years ago, not one student was passing the math portion of the fourth-grade WASL. Last year, the number jumped to an astounding 45 percent. During Wright's tenure, the percentages on the other WASL portions climbed impressively as well, from the teens, 20s, and 30s to the 50s and 60s. The jump in scores, particularly in math, are so unusual that it's natural to suspect some ancillary cause, perhaps a demographic change. But the demographics have remained roughly constant, aside from a modest 10 percent drop in the percentage of African Americans over four years.

I agree that arithmetic is important- but higher level concepts can also be taught before processing speed and memorization of computation steps kicks in

Both my kids also had good math instruction in high school. One even managed to graduate with honors, finishing with precalc, when she began high school, two grade levels behind. ( with lots of support from teachers @ Garfield- inc, Ms Butler & Ms Burtonl)

The other had strong teachers as well, including from Gary Anderson, who is head of the math dept @ SAAS, where the math classes are the most popular electives in the school!

Dan have you ever heard of Moodle?
I am just starting in open source- but it sounds exciting.
dan dempsey said…
Dear Emeralkity,

I am unfamiliar with Moodle.
Good one and thanks a lot for sharing!

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