Posted June 13, 2012
by Lensyl Urbano
There’s been a push for students to take algebra earlier and earlier, yet there are some serious pedagogic arguments that early algebra might not be a great idea for many, if not most, students. A fascinating paper by Clotfelter et al., (2012) (pdf) showed pretty clearly that for a large number of students, taking algebra earlier actually resulted in worse performance in not just algebra, but the follow-up classes as well (geometry and pre-calculus for example), compared to students who waited to take the subject. Indeed the Charlotte-Mecklenburg School District (the district studied in the article) actually reversed their policy of having students take algebra in 8th grade.
Students affected by the acceleration initiative scored significantly lower on end-of-course tests in Algebra I, and were either no more likely or significantly less likely to pass standard follow-up courses, Geometry and Algebra II
— Clotfelter et al., (2012): The Aftermath of Accelerating Algebra: Evidence from a District Policy Initiative (pdf) via NY Fed.
The argument for early algebra comes from the correlation between early algebra and better performance on standardized tests, and more advanced math classes in high school. But the authors here indicate that forcing students to take algebra early does not result in the same outcomes.
The argument against early algebra is based on the research that shows formal thinking develops during adolescence, and the belief that to do well in algebra requires the abstract thinking skills that are seated in the maturing prefrontal cortex. Until students are ready for the abstract thinking required (which happens at different times for each student), they will struggle with algebra.
Algebra provides an essential foundation for further mathematics, which is why it is my strong preference that students progress by demonstrating mastery of the topics at their own pace rather than struggling through the class.