By Promoting Are We Hindering?

Just last week I talked to some adults about one of our students that had decided to run track rather than play baseball. This came as quite a shock to me as he was always a “baseball” player. One of the adults shared how this student was frustrated because he had been pulled up to varsity as a freshman, and, not being ready for the speed of the game at this new level, as the season progressed saw his number of errors rise and his playing time decrease.

I feel for this student. I still remember being “brought up” to play basketball on varsity during my sophomore year. It was rough! But beyond sports, this got me thinking about the implications to our promoting students early in school, especially in the subject of mathematics. There are two situations I’ve seen a rise in lately that as a former math teacher give me cause for concern.

The first situation is the trend to have students in middle school take Algebra and even sometimes Geometry. Now admittedly, there are some students that are ready for these subjects early, but there are two issues I think we need to address when having middle school students take these classes early. The first is the fact that middle school is a middle ground. Both high school teachers AND elementary teachers can teach in middle school. Content-wise, there is a HUGE difference between the courses that a certified high school mathematics teacher takes to receive even a minor in mathematics and the courses that an elementary teacher with a major or minor in mathematics takes. As the trend grows to have more students “pulled up” to the higher level, more elementary teachers will be teaching mathematics beyond their scope of knowledge and expertise.

The second issue with middle schoolers learning higher mathematics is the trend to “have all Eighth Graders take Algebra.” This is a student preparedness issue. There are many topics in Algebra that are very abstract. While there are students that are ready to tackle this content while in middle school, this is the exception not the rule. If their mathematics skills are already weak, and students are mandated to take Algebra in Eighth Grade, are we not setting them up for failure in mathematics for the rest of their school career? At a time when we WANT students going into math oriented fields, I think this does a disservice in the long run. This point was really brought home to me when talking to some middle school students about the Distributive Property. This is a fundamental property used often within Algebra (think factoring, simplifying expressions, etc). The students I talked to really did not understand the property so were definitely going to struggle in understanding how to use it. Yet during the next week they were going to be moving into solving small equations where they would need to use the property in order to work the problems. A seemingly small little property that they didn’t “get” was going to cause them to struggle for much of the remainder of the year, and the years to come.

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