Dumbed Down Algebra

(From Substitute Teaching in Alexandria, Virginia)

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 Akexandrai and 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 our public education 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, our students today are not nearly as well prepared in the subject. Classmates of mine who took business math at the rural public school I attended in the 1950's had a much better comprehension of mathematics than most students I've worked with in Alexandria.

At the George Washington Middle School where I once covered an eight-grade general math class on a long-term assignment, most of my students were at fourth-grade level, it that. Few had had an inkling of the multiplication tables and many were still counting with their fingers. Their elementary school teachers obviously had not been able to give them the mathematical foundation they needed. (Many K-5 teachers admit they aren't very good at math. Some actually hate the subject.) By the end of the year some of my atudents had 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 advanced algebra class. The students in the main were reasonably well-behaved kids, mainly white, from middle class families and all, of course, were on the school's "talented and gifted" program. Yet, with few exceptions, most 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 many of my general math students, some had not yet learned their multiplication tables and were still counting with their fingers. All had been issued expensive 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 might 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.

Our public 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. Our Algebra teachers 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 math 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 sport celebrities, who, for all I knew, were not particularly famous for their mathematical prowess. The graphs and formulas I had put on the walls apparently weren't entertaining enough.

And if this dumbing down of the subject were not enough, students who can't learn Algebra I 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. Algebra II likewise is broken up into two parts, much of which consists of remedial work in basic arithmetic. But no matter how much the subject is fragmented students unprepared for it are not going to learn it.

Our tate mandated test scores in Algebra (SOL's)have improved slightly in recent years, but only because teachers are under strict orders to teach to the tests, and because test-takers are allowed to use graphing calculators. But ask any of our Algebra public students to set up and solve a problem that requires them to reason algebraically—for example: if a worker can do 2½ jobs in 30 seconds, how many jobs can he do in 3¼ hours?—and most couldn't begin to solve it. The early Algebra and Algebra-for-all program served up by our public schools may look great on paper, but, in truth, it's a sham.

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