Sunday, January 9, 2011

Why Are You in Algebra 2?

The title is a thought I have had a number of times lately. I do some tutoring online, and the largest number of my sessions come from students who are seeking an Algebra 2 tutor. [I also tutor Algebra 1, Geometry, Trigonometry, and Statistics.] Sadly, many students' sessions begin with something like this:

Student: I need to solve this equation [student shares an equation containing a logarithm].
Me: Have you ever done an equation like this one before?
Student: No.
Me: OK...have you ever worked with logarithms before?
Student: What's a logarithm?
Although it's not the focus of my concern while I'm tutoring, there are several possible explanations for such ignorance:
  • The student is goofing around, either presently, or in class earlier in the day(s).
  • The student is taking an online course and has no teacher to whom to ask questions; consequently, the student is totally lost.
  • The student has been passed from one math course to the next over time, has learned virtually nothing, and is now hopelessly puzzled.
  • The student is actually at the college level and probably hasn't taken a math class in years, if not decades.
The last two options seem to be depressingly common. I am led to the following thesis:
Students should not be permitted to take Algebra 2 until they have demonstrated a firm level of competency in Algebra 1. This applies both in high school and at the college level (regardless of what these courses may be named in college).
This became a big issue in Michigan a couple years ago (see my thoughts here) when the legislature, in a perhaps-well-meaning-but-totally-void-of-reality move made Algebra 2 part of the general graduation requirements for all public school students. Among other problems, this pressures teachers in the earlier grades to pass students along so that they can "get to Algebra 2 and pass it" before completing high school. This is neither wise nor fair.

But that's not my main point here. Parents and teachers in the upper high school grades (and professors, academic advisers, and students in colleges) must recognize that if the student is not ready for Algebra 2, the student should not be taking Algebra 2. The student should instead be sent to Algebra 1 (or, if necessary, something more basic) in order to master the requisite skills needed.

Self-esteem is not an issue here, either. It is no more psychologically beneficial to struggle with, cheat through, or fail one course than it is to step back and take a remedial one that will, in the long run, help the student to succeed.

Furthermore, a competent teacher with a class full of competent Algebra 2 students will be able to make more progress than if that teacher has to try to get all the incompetent students caught up at the same time. In other words, those students who have succeeded up to this point won't be held back by all the students who (for whatever reason) have not.

Finally, let us note that the blame for this phenomenon can be shared all around. Sure, some kids are slackers and are lost in Algebra 2 for reasons of their own creation. Yes, some teachers are inept [they should be removed, but discussing teacher unions and their prerogatives is not the point of this post]. Certainly, some parents pay no attention to their children's educational progress. And, contemptibly, some school administrators don't really care.

If you are a parent of an Algebra 2 student (or one yourself, at whatever age or level), consider this: Make sure your student is ready to take that class. If not, get them ready...first.

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