Having worked in education for nearly 20 years I have seen, firsthand, how the pressure on students to achieve has dramatically increased throughout the years. This is true both in the classroom and on the ballfield, as parents with good intentions commonly seek out the best opportunities that will prepare their children for long-term “success.” But often, in the conversation of “what’s next” or “what’s best” for the child, there is a lack of consideration for the long-term trajectory of learning and the educational experience.
There is one particular topic in education that, as a superintendent, crosses my desk each year that exemplifies this point. It is the increasingly common belief that students should take Algebra I in seventh grade. As a former math major and teacher of mathematics, I find this line of thinking flawed. The benefits of taking Algebra I in seventh grade have little to do with what is best for actual learning.
It has more to do with where this track leads — to high school seniors taking AP Calculus or AP Statistics. Doing that can allow the student to earn college credits, and thus save tuition money, or can provide a perceived college admissions boost. While this prospect is not inherently bad, it takes the focus away from the most important priority, which is quality learning itself.
The placement of students in Algebra I as a seventh-grader also offers a high negative risk that I have seen play out repeatedly for above-average math students. The story goes something like this: A student exits fifth grade as an above-average math student and is placed in a homogeneous sixth grade “high math” class. Seats in this class are coveted by well-meaning parents who are committed to having their child in the best environment possible. At this point, there is no problem.
The issue occurs when expectations for the sixth grade math class are that the entire class will move together into Algebra I in seventh grade. The consequences of this decision for students and parents can continue to show up for years down the line.
For example, many students whose parents elect for them to take Algebra I in seventh grade actually “succeed” — at least in the short-term. Despite a steep learning curve between the sixth grade content and the Algebra I class, students are often able to “white knuckle” their way through the course.
After all, these are usually highly intelligent students who have the grit and curiosity that can help them achieve above-average grades in the course. Furthermore, when the struggle becomes overwhelming at times, parents feel the pressure to employ private tutors and, hand-in-hand with the tutor, the students will survive the course. In eighth grade, these same students often do well in Geometry because that course is not closely aligned with any type of algebraic thinking. However, in ninth grade, at the time when the student’s academic performance begins to have the high stakes of a high school transcript, they enroll in the Algebra II class and guess what happens? The bottom drops out as students can experience their worst year of education when they should be experiencing high amounts of success and enjoyment as a first-year high school student. At this point, parents often wonder “what happened to my child who was a solid math student,” and they will incorrectly assign blame for the students’ academic decline in this area as a symptom of being a teenager. In some cases, I have observed students who never fully recover from the overwhelming negative ninth-grade year of Algebra II where the proverbial “chickens come home to roost” as a result of the “high sixth-grade class” as the gateway to Algebra I in seventh grade.
To more objectively explore the ills of a much-flawed educational process, it is important that the adult decision-makers examine what the research says about that science of successful learning.
In the book, “Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning,” authors Peter C. Brown, Henry L. Roediger III, and Mark A. McDaniel, note that massed practice of a skill of new knowledge, such as cramming it all in to a single year of study and trying to “burn something into memory,” can often lead to the illusion of mastery. But true mastery and application, durability, and long-term memory are not usual outcomes of that approach.
Retrieval practice, or recalling facts, concepts, or events from memory, is a more effective learning strategy than cramming. When practice is spaced out over a longer period of time (before students become even a little rusty), the retrieval method of “interrupting the forgetting” produces longer-lasting learning. Retrieval must be spaced out rather than becoming mindless repetition. True learning is a three-step process of initial encoding, consolidation, and retrieval. We must respect the process.
Deep practice and chunking are the secrets to accelerated struggle and learning. It’s not about how fast a student can do a task — it is about how slowly they can complete a task correctly. Chunking takes place in these dimensions; understanding the task as a whole, dividing it into its smallest possible chunks and, lastly, taking the time to organize and apply its application. It is here that myelin in the nerve fibers in the brain increase signal, strength, speed and accuracy, according to Daniel Coyle, author of “The Talent Code.” In other words, it is far better to learn a task slowly and accurately rather than quickly with inaccuracies.
If a task is accelerated too much, learning slows down. Failure is better at building character than building skill. Deep thinking relies on rote learning, and automaticity can only occur once the mind is freed from the memorization which inhibits deep thinking. Athletes and other performers often describe how, after a certain amount of experience, a deliberate practice over time, the game “slows down” for them.
Considering the research, it is important for parents to consider all available alternatives prior to placing their child in the risky pressure cooker of seventh-grade Algebra I as they consider the following options:
• Allow the child to take pre-Algebra in seventh grade and Algebra in eighth grade. Over this two-year period, there will be more time for deep practice, retrieval, chunking and automaticity.
• The student should take Geometry in ninth grade and Algebra II in 10th grade. During the years, the strength of the algebraic foundation will grow ever stronger with more retrieval and practice. Deep thinking will occur as a result of a stronger foundation. Additionally, at the conclusion of 10th grade, the student will be fully prepared and positioned to do well on the SATs, a college entrance exam where Algebra II is the highest level of math.
The same thinking could be applied if the child took two years of pre-Algebra in seventh and eighth grade, Algebra I in ninth grade, Geometry in 10th grade and Algebra II in 11th grade. College entrance exams could be taken at the conclusion of 11th grade.
In choosing one of the paths above, a child may not have the opportunity to take Calculus or college-credited studies in high school. However, this possibility can exist if the high school allows students to double up on their math classes and to use their elective for a math class.
I believe that a better path for many high-achieving students in Algebra I is eighth or ninth grade because of the deep practice that can yield to higher levels of foundational automaticity, a benefit that will pay valuable dividends long into the future when the mathematics bar is raised to include high levels of abstract thinking.
I encourage schools and families to consider this opinion from a seasoned educator who didn’t take Algebra I until ninth grade and went on to begin my educational career as a math teacher.