Mathnasium owner: Understanding algebra is critical to students’ math success

As the director of the Mathnasium Learning Center in Issaquah, I come in contact with frustrated parents whose children are enrolled in, and failing, Algebra classes at school.

By Sumitha Reddy

As the director of the Mathnasium Learning Center in Issaquah, I come in contact with frustrated parents whose children are enrolled in, and failing, Algebra classes at school.

Generally, these students attend class regularly while attempting to follow along with the teacher. However, in reality they are terribly confused when the teacher speaks a language of factoring polynomials and finding slope intercepts.

More often, due to the well-intentioned, but misguided, thinking of various state laws, parents, and school counselors, far too many students are being programmed into college-prep Algebra I “too soon.” The student enters the class without the prerequisite knowledge necessary for success in Algebra.

Algebra, with its equations and variables, is more abstract than the math that most students learn before it. It uses symbols and letters to generalize numbers, and these sets of symbols express math relationships as a powerful problem-solving tool.

Students and parents who think that all they want is to “survive and pass” the class they are presently taking are not addressing the real problem: the foundation math requires for each successive year.

We are constantly asked to tutor students on tonight’s homework and prepare for this Friday’s test. Students must realize that memorizing, without understanding, the algorithm to solve a math problem does not equate to learning how to solve other math problems. Upon enrolling in the next higher level math class, students who have merely “survived” this way will discover that they are not standing on a firm math foundation and that their grades will most likely plummet.

Without the prerequisite knowledge necessary for success, the potential for failure and the potential of discouraged students and exasperated teachers quitting has concerned local school officials. Former Superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District Roy Romer was quoted in a recent Los Angeles Times article as saying that Algebra “triggers dropouts more than any single subject. I think it is a cumulative failure of our ability to teach math adequately in the public school system.”

We at Mathnasium think he is right. In the overall “big picture,” failure at the Algebra I level has been caused by the failure to ensure that students acquire number sense in the elementary grades and solid pre-Algebra skills in middle school.

In addition, many students are year-after-year put into classes for which they don’t have the prerequisite knowledge for success. It is not surprising that more than half of students taking Algebra fail or get a D.

Understanding Algebra can mean the difference between getting stuck in menial labor and having a high-level career. High school students will not be accepted by many four-year colleges without it. Successfully passing Algebra and higher level math is strongly correlated with college completion. Algebra is required in apprentice programs for electricians, plumbers, and construction workers. The practical benefits of Algebra are the analytical skills and formulas which enable people to compete and prosper in our highly technological world.

Until we address: 1) number sense, 2) pre-Algebra preparation, and 3) proper class placement, attempts at math “reform,” will continue to be no more than an exercise in futility.

Sumitha Reddy is the owner of Mathnasium – Math Only Learning Center, in Issaquah