*AsĀ ***Dropout Nation***Ā made clear in last week’s analysis of Brookings Institution scholar Tom Loveless’ report on the impact of efforts to provide introductory algebra in middle schools, few districts throughout the country have actually implemented efforts by states to help more kids learn advanced math. But the fact that few middle schoolers are taking algebra is one aspect of the low levels of numeracy among our kids. Another issue is the lack of high-quality math instruction, especially in kindergarten and the early grades. As the National Council on Teacher Quality pointed out in a 2009 reportless access to high-quality math instruction, just 10 out of 77 university schools of education it surveyed met high standards in training aspiring math teachers. Add in the fact that poor and minority kids (who are often relegated to low-level math classes and to special ed ghettos) often have even less access to high-quality math teachers than their middle class and white counterparts, and one can see why so few kids end up being put on the path to mastering algebraic equations. The legendary mathematician Leonhard Euler, who almost single-handedly Ā developed theĀ mathematics lexicon we know so well today (and who was born 300 years ago today), would likely be displeased by this.Ā *

*In this* **Voices of the Dropout Nation**, *Los Angeles teacher Peter D. Ford III explains the underlying instructional issues that are a culprit for why so many children struggle with basic and advanced numeracy. Read, consider, and take action.Ā *

I am a late-bloomerĀ in math. I didn’t take Algebra 1 in eighth grade. Instead, I took it in ninth. Yet by my senior year of high school, was in an AP Calculus class. Call me a nerd, but I think it was because I left eighth grade being able to add, subtract, multiply and divide rational numbers, and I could read. This isn’t true for many of our students — and why so many don’t ever succeed in math.

In California schools get points on the state’s Academic Performance Index for having more students take the Algebra 1 version of the California Standards Test (CST). Yet the school is dinged if students don’t score Proficient, or worse score Below Basic. Given the incentives, schools make the strategic decision of having only their top 20 percent-to-30 percent take the Algebra 1 test so as to improve their chances of raising their API.

The real issue, as always, for middle school math is getting so many students in middle school that are mathematically illiterate.

Too many middle school math teachers can share horror stories of 11- and 12-year-olds who have to think more than one second about 8×7, or worse count on their fingers to figure out 16 -7 = 9. Unless these students are remediated in third grade math skills and done so intensively,Ā these students will struggle with Algebra in the middle grades. In fact, the struggle California’s middle grade students (and those throughout the country) with algebra and other advanced math because of weak basic numeracy. Ā This is a problem that starts before they reach middle school.

At the elementary level, teachers are allowed to let students use “appropriate tools” in their math work. For some teachers, the term “appropriate tools” means students adding with calculators in while in fourth grade. Punching digits on a machine to figure out 13 – 8 or 8 x 9 is far, far slower than recalling them from memory. Like a computer with insufficient RAM, students taking too long to complete simple calculations will never grasp more complex content. On the other hand, those who have mastered the fundamentals certainly will.

Where I teach in Southern California we can identify by elementary school and in some cases teacher which children coming to our middle school had either strong or weak math instruction. As I’ve mentioned before, without a continuum of quality instruction our students will not have the opportunity to succeed in high school, college, or career. Our Algebra 1 failure in the middle grades is a symptom-outcome of our mathematics failure throughout elementary and secondary education.