If you’re not proficient in algebra, then you’ll stand just about no chance with Calculus, Geometry, Trigonometry, Statistics or any other high school math class. Students must learn algebra first, and that’s why many educators believe it is the most important math class.
For years, algebra was a high school freshman level class, and very few students took it before their freshman year. But, administrators eventually began pushing heavily for students to start algebra classes in the 8th grade or sooner, according to an article in the District Administration.
And now administrators are pushing even harder for students to take algebra earlier, as reports that American eighth-graders and fourth-graders were outperformed by most of their foreign peers on the TIMSS mathematics assessment in 2007.
Administrators then looked to algebra, believing that it was a gateway to not only success in math classes, but also high school, college and future career success. They believed that algebra could have serious economic implications. Administrators also found that high school students who fail or struggle with algebra have much higher dropout rates.
Many believe that algebra is one of the strongest, early indicators of future success. It represents how well students have performed in previous math classes, and how well they can perform in future math classes.
Mathematical skills and thinking are critical for employment in science, technology and engineering – three of the fields that could lead to strong economic growth. And administrators are hoping to improve students’ algebra skills by starting them in programs earlier.
The U.S. Department of Labor said pushing for earlier algebra classes is a lot more than just keeping up with foreign students. Many of the country’s fastest-growing occupations require advanced mathematical and algebraic skills such as network systems analysts, financial examiners, statistics, engineering and technology fields.
“In algebra, you learn so much more than just how to calculate,” said Judy Zimny, a former principal in the Dallas Independent School District and chief program development officer at ASCD (formerly the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. “Algebra is about how to find the unknowns, how to organize information, how to think critically, how to make decisions and how to see patterns.”
Nationwide, 31 percent of eighth-graders said they were taking algebra in 2007, and 35 percent of high school juniors earned credit in algebra II, according to research at the Brookings Institution and the National Center for Education Statistics.
However, algebra is still a challenge for many high school students. A 2010 survey of 22 postsecondary math instructors determined that nearly all found algebra a very important prerequisite for college-level math. Yet, many of the respondents rated incoming freshmen’s knowledge of algebraic topics as “poor” or “very poor.”
Many attribute this lack of success to pushing students into algebra too soon, before they are even ready. They argue that this just sets them up for failure, and they never quite learn the basics before they take higher level classes.
Yet, none can deny its importance, and students should focus their efforts in algebra classes at all levels because those skills could be used throughout their academic and professional careers.