California recently decided that every 8th grade student will be tested in algebra, ostensibly forcing every 8th grader into an algebra class whether they're prepared or not. Proponents say students need to take more challenging math earlier in school to prepare them for the future economy, to help American students catch up to their peers around the world. They also say that having some students take the course in 8th grade and others wait would create a great inequity that the latter group would never recover from.
The truth is that this plan won't solve anything. Students who are unprepared for the course will fail, and become more averse to and frustrated with math than they already are. This policy raises the bar without giving the students any tools to get over it! The majority of students I've had either had no confidence in their math abilities, hated math, lacked the basic skills needed to tackle the course, or all three. The plan will compound existing problems, and force schools to focus more on standardized test prep at the expense of actual learning, which is all thanks to the well-known limitations of No Child Left Behind.
The real problem, which is not addressed at all by the mandate is that the standards in all lower grades are too broad and detailed. I wrote about this earlier this year (see Why we need to change the way we teach math), but sadly the issue is still being ignored even in this election year. In the countries that are consistently outperforming us, standards are streamlined so that by the time they reach 8th grade, they have mastered the basic foundations needed to succeed in algebra and beyond. In turn, those countries have more time to spend on problem solving and critical thinking, so that the higher-level thinking required in algebra is easier to grasp.
There are many other problems that need to be addressed, such as our fundamental approach to teaching the subject (which is, in many ways, the heart and soul of this blog), getting students started earlier (via Head Start and other Pre-K programs), and changing the country's perception of math in general.
What I mean by that last part is that while the two are often paired, math has one problem that science increasingly doesn't: it is categorically uncool. The Discovery Channel and its sister stations are making science more "cool" every day, revealing the fascinating science that is everywhere around us. There is no Math Channel; beyond CBS's Numb3rs, there's no digestible, real world math programming aimed at anyone beyond early elementary age. I often imagine what a program about real world math, done in a fun and interesting manner like Mythbusters or Dirty Jobs, might look like. The same goes for video games, one of the great untapped resources for American education, where so many require skills across the spectrum except for math.
California's new stance is at one end of the extreme, but I've taught in many districts at the other, where students don't even have the option to take algebra in 8th grade. Algebra should certainly be offered, and students who are prepared should be encouraged to take it, but it should in no way be mandated or tested across the grade level. Courses that bridge the gap between lower level math and algebra should be developed as well. Unfortunately without fundamental changes to the way math is taught before students reach 8th grade, even those reasonable solutions won't help California reach any of its lofty goals.