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More algebra, please

I applaud HISD for doing this.

A handful of campuses in the Houston Independent School District are experimenting with placing their best math students in algebra in seventh grade – two years before most take the class.

The earlier they pass algebra, the thinking goes, the more time they have to take advanced math courses in high school that could lead to college credit.

Over the last decade, policy-makers across the nation have pushed for algebra to become the standard for eighth grade, while some educators argue against the rush.

HISD’s move to teach algebra to an even younger set gives the students – many from poor, minority families – a head start in the course, considered a stepping stone to college and 21st century careers.

Time will tell whether the effort produces a crop of math brainiacs who take college-level calculus and statistics in high school or burnouts who ditch the subject after earning the four credits needed to graduate.

“Certainly we don’t want to push kids into something they’re not ready for,” said Monica Kendall, HISD’s manager of secondary math. “But I would like to challenge what people think kids are ready for. A lot of people think economically disadvantaged students can’t do upper-level math. My whole perspective has been, ‘Let’s find out what they can do.’ ”

Little research exists on seventh-graders taking algebra, although HISD isn’t breaking entirely new ground.

Locally, the Spring Branch and Alvin school districts are among those that have been enrolling their top seventh-graders in algebra for years.

I have no opinion on whether algebra should be the standard in eighth grade, but I can tell you from personal experience that seventh graders have been taking algebra successfully for many years. I know because I took it in the seventh grade, which was in 1978-79. My intermediate school (that’s what they call “middle school” in New York) offered algebra for its gifted & talented seventh and eighth graders; it was done as a two-year course, and enabled you to go straight to geometry in high school. By doing so, you were on track to be able to complete a year of calculus in high school, which needless to say gave you an advantage going into college.

Obviously, this isn’t for everybody; the story says that about two percent of HISD’s seventh graders are enrolled, which almost surely means there’s room for growth. It should be fairly easy to identify the kids who are bored with grade-level math and are ready for a greater challenge. It should be the goal to make algebra available in every middle school for all seventh graders who would like to take it.

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3 Comments

  1. chasman says:

    thanks for passing this item around. this is a huge and, with luck, possibly a hugely rewarding step. unfortunately, i’m an english teacher — check your typo in the last sentence of the first paragraph after the quote from the chronicle.

  2. Gary Bennett says:

    As a retired math teacher, I am all too acquainted with doctrinaire educationalists who are determined to hold everyone down to the lowest common denominator. Nonetheless, in my public school district in suburban Philadelphia I was teaching Honors Algebra II (the third course in the sequence) to 9th graders (an an occasional 10th grader); these students were on track to take second year calculus by their senior year (and we had several teachers who could teach it). Even with this, there were more and more students who reached these plateaus a year early; the district accommodated them by bussing them to universities that could meet their needs. All this in a high school that also strove to meet the needs of an increasing number of poorly prepared students who were transferring in from bad inner city schools. That’s what used to be called a comprehensive public high school!