8th Grade Algebra: Too Tough or Appropriate Challenge?

by | Jan 5, 2015

In December, parent frustration over Eighth Grade Algebra I at Cole Middle School bubbled onto social media, where concerns over the level of difficulty, class size and the need for outside tutoring were among the topics mentioned. Administrators, meanwhile, argue while the class is rigorous, nearly two-thirds of students got an A or B in the first quarter and no students got a failing grade.

Hand writing algebra equations

In grades 7 and 8, students take Math 7 and Math 8 or a higher level course. Students who have top grades and teacher recommendation (or are waived in by their parents) are eligible to take Accelerated Math 7, which includes all of Math 7 plus some of Math 8, and Eighth Grade Algebra I, which includes the rest of Math 8 and all of Algebra I.

“I told my son a B in that class is great – it’s hard!” wrote one parent on the EG Parents for Excellence Facebook page. “… He is more stressed than I possibly have ever seen him. I just want to be sure he is properly learning the material. Also… the kids getting D’s…how will they adapt and move on to harder math in HS? Are they not learning the basics of Algebra? I think the biggest issue is the pace is just too fast.”

Another parent questioned the size of the class: “My daughter is in accelerated math … and is struggling – more so than in any previous school year. I agree with what [Cole principal] Mrs. Meyer have said about it being a challenge to shift to Algebra, but it’s clear to me that there are other factors at play. Personally, I struggle with the fact that my daughter’s class has 31 students. How can any student get the attention he/she needs in a class that size?”

According to Meyers, there are 106 8th graders in the higher level math classes, just over half the total number of 8th graders (210) this year.

“More than any course that students have taken to this point, Algebra I is a rigorous course that requires students to approach mathematics conceptually, to grapple with problems, and to develop the habits of mind that lead to productive learning,” said Math Department Chair Patricia Dulac in a memo released to the press.

As to whether or not parents should be allowed to waive in their child, Principal Meyer said that was a family choice, but she said the fact that the course is challenging shouldn’t be a reason to avoid it, especially during middle school.

“Why wouldn’t we open every opportunity for kids, especially at this young age? They’re young, they’re learning, they’re developing – why not give them the challenge?” she said. “Much of the defining documents for middle school education talk about creating every opportunity for middle schoolers.

That is in stark contrast to years back, when Cole was a “junior high school.” In those years, Meyer recalled, there were five different levels of math offered in each grade. For the students who ended up in the very lowest level of math, it could become a self-fulfilling prophecy, she said, with low expectations leading to low results.

Student success is an indication the course is appropriate, Meyer and Dulac both said. In the first quarter, 25 percent of students in Eighth Grade Algebra I got an A in the class, with another 33 percent getting a B and 34 percent getting a C. Eight students (7.5 percent) got a D in the course. No one failed.

“Really, a solid B in this kind of work is something to celebrate,” said Meyer. “It’s OK for kids to grapple and struggle with these kinds of classes.”

Nearly every East Greenwich student takes Algebra I, said Dulac. The question is when.

“It is not the case that better/smarter students take Algebra I in middle school rather than in high school. When a student takes Algebra I is based on development ability, not cognitive ability,” she said.

But one reason to take Algebra I at Cole is so a student will have room in his or her schedule to take calculus at the high school without doubling up in math classes at some point. Of course, by doing that, they are effectively doubling up in middle school instead.

There is some help for students who are struggling: the teachers stay late one or two afternoons a week to meet with students. But some parents say there are too many students who need help. Some have found help with outside resources.

And, recently, some students established the Math Geek Study Group on Tuesdays after school so students could work together and help each other that way.

Postscript: Patricia Dulac, math chair, said no class exceeds 30 students due to a contractual limit on the number of students allowed per class.

“There are four Eighth Grade Algebra I classes with the following enrollments:  23, 25, 29, and 29,” she said via email.
She said 12 percent of students were waived into the class by their parents.

 

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47 Comments

  1. Parent

    In my opinion 8th grade math is not the problem the problem is the high level students are not being challenged at the 4rth-6th grade level. There are many students that are breezing through math classes up until 8th grade when they make a great leap into Algebra 1. If the district would offer an accelerated paced or individualized paced math program at the elementary and 6th grade levels the students would be more then ready for Algebra 1 if not more. I believe the students are taking a combination of Math 8 and Algebra ! rather than just Algebra – maybe it would be easier if they had already had Math 8. If I were a parent of a 4-5th grader I would start thinking about this now. Push for higher level maths or introduce your A student to higher math on your own.

    Reply
    • mom of 3

      i love that idea of accelerated math being introduced earlier (4th – 6th grade)….i have a child who has been completely bored by the math curriculum — he is now in 5th grade. his starr testing puts him at an 8th grade level…but little or nothing has been done to give him material appropriate for him…all of his teachers have been wonderful and well-meaning but there’s no administrative or institutional plan for these kids. the teachers are left to their own devices and it’s just too much to ask of them with all the other kids they need to to teach who are at or need help being brought up to grade level. what can we do? principals…we need a plan!!

      Reply
      • A group of parents

        @mom of 3, We have started raising our concerns to the school committee. The district has no plan to offer an appropriate education. Superintendent said previously that the district wouldn’t know (consider it) if the parents do not speak up. The STAR reports were kept in the drawers unless the parent requests it. You should raise your concerns to the school committee.

        Reply
        • citizen

          STAR reports are one score on one test. Standardized tests do not accurately portray what a child is or is not capable of. Other factors must be included to determine a child’s academic success. I have two children – one performs well on standardized tests but does not work to full potential in the classroom. My other child scores in the average range on standardized tests but loves to put in the effort it takes to achieve goods grades in school.

          Reply
          • A group of parents

            Other factors are East Greenwich math department is well-known to hold students back.

    • Recent 8th grader

      The problem can also be the teachers. When I was in middle school (last year) neither math teacher was thought to have been doing a great job. With that said I did learn and now am in geometry as a freshman. The only requirement is to get a better quiz average than a 75 which is pretty reasonable. Eventhough I did struggle I moved on to geometry. It also needs to be said that colleges don’t look at middle school grades. With that argument there is the fact that math carries over (have your children study completing the square and the pythagorean theorem). The only fix to this solution is to study more.

      P.S. Geometry is the easiest class I have ever taken.

      Reply
  2. I live in East Greenwich

    The first issue is the transitions between the grade levels. Algebra 1 transition is not the only concern. The freshman Honors English Course at EGHS is another “well-known course.” The second issue is that Cole math teachers ask students self-checking their homework. There is no feedback between teachers and students (base on homework) until the test date which is always too late. The bigger issue in our district is that there are so many parents and tutors involved (various reasons) which hides the issues in our school system over the years. The NECAP (PARCC is coming) report card does not break down the efforts by parents, tutors, students and the schools.

    Reply
    • EG Parent

      Excellent points. Is the academic achievement level of EG students a product of classroom learning, or is it a result of the paid tutoring and parental support? Based on anecdotal evidence from my children, their peers and regular conversation among parents, there is a surprising number of high- school students who have multiple paid tutors.Many parents are disheartened since they moved to the town and pay the comparatively high property taxes for the reportedly “good” public school system, versus paying private tuition. Now, as their children progress to and through the high-school, they are paying for tutors. I think the School Committee would find it very enlightening if they issued a survey to capture the number of students with one or more paid tutors, the associated class(es), and whether those tutors also happen to be EG teachers!

      Reply
  3. Jacqueline Kramer

    I find it interesting that people are complaining about a class being “too hard”, when most of the time people are complaining that the schools are not challenging their children enough. Here’s the solution for those of you who think it’s too hard: take your child out of the class. Obviously it’s appropriate for the students that are getting a higher than average grade. Believe it or not, it’s actually a good thing for kids to have to work hard to achieve!

    Reply
  4. Jen Condon

    When we look at the grades students receive in Algebra 1 we must also consider how much time is spent being tutored either by the classroom teacher, a professional tutor, parent or someone else.

    In my opinion, it is not just that the class is more rigorous. Is the class taught at the same speed and depth as Algebra 1 at the HS? If so, why are the students who are more accelerated in math having a more difficult time than those who take it “on time” in 9th grade. What is different? If Math 8 and Algebra 1 are being taught at the same time does that mean additional material is being taught or just that the pre-algebra material is being taught as Algebra 1 material. Is it a difference in the teachers?

    We need to determine actually how the kids are dong (in 8th and 9th grade), taking into consideration how much outside help the students need. We also need to determine the difference between Algebra 1 in Cole and Algebra 1 taught in HS.

    Reply
  5. parent

    Algebra 1 is honors 7th grade math course in many school districts. Geometry and Algebra 2 are popular 8th grade math courses these days.

    Reply
  6. parent

    Elizabeth, Do you have the data on how waive-in students performing? One waive-in student said the course was too easy.

    Reply
    • Elizabeth McNamara

      I don’t have the info, parent, but I will ask.

      Reply
  7. parent

    Elizabeth, Do you have the data on how waive-in students performing? One waive-in student said the course was too easy.

    Reply
  8. concerned parent

    According to today’s Pendulum, 44% of the students in the Honors 8th grade math class received a C or a D. This is startling to me. Is it acceptable when almost half of the class is, I believe, performing well below average (is C really average?) I think one of the biggest problems here is class size. 30 students is too many. I have a student in 10th grade at EGHS in a math class of 30 plus. The teacher seems stressed. Questions asked during class are sometimes met with exasperation. To get extra help, the students can stay after two afternoons a week along with a sizable amount of others waiting for extra help. The math book is in deplorable condition, and is rarely used by the teacher. I am paying for a math tutor outside of class. The goal of math instruction ought to be to bring each student up to B level so that they are prepared for the next building block of math which relies on a firm foundation. I think our tax dollars would be better spent on more teachers, study halls, and new books rather than on Chromebooks.

    Reply
    • Parent

      The newest and best “text books” are digital ! They offer real life implications and allow the users to move at their own pace with more individualized time with the teacher. Most of our sons/daughters will be taking higher math more in depth than we ever did in school. The key is to challenge the students at an earlier age, not let them breeze through the lower grades but challenge them at every level so when the do get to the higher grades they know a challenge doesn’t mean failure.

      Reply
      • parent

        @Parent, East Greenwich math department is well known for no interest in challenging students.

        Reply
      • Concerned Parent

        I would welcome the use of digital textbooks. These are not being budgeted for or provided at EGHS, despite the fact that every student was issued a Chromebook.

        Reply
    • Jacqueline Kramer

      Wait a minute…a “C” is still considered “average”, correct? So it makes total and complete sense that about half of the class would be getting below average (again, average means about half should be above a C and half should be below). Please, if a child is not capable of getting the grade you think he or he should get in an Honors class, put them in the non-Honors class. Do not take the higher academical level away from the kids that are getting As and Bs!

      Reply
      • parent

        The concern is the professional tutoring and parental support required for students to achieve As and Bs.

        Reply
      • Concerned Parent

        I still firmly believe that more of the students would achieve As and Bs if class sizes were smaller. This seems to me to be the biggest problem. Not teachers or curriculum. I don’t agree that it makes sense that half the class should be getting below average. What’s wrong with a class where everyone has a strong grasp of the subject matter and makes As and Bs? This requires a smaller class with a little more personal attention to each student and a lot less stress on the teacher. My child is being tutored in a non-honors math class with over 30 students.

        Reply
    • citizen

      Yes, a C is average. For some reason, parents don’t think it is acceptable for a student to earn a “C”. It seems that when a student earns a “C” the teacher is always blamed for not being effective. I agree with much of your post but can we include this into the discussion: What responsibility does the student have? and Why aren’t parents asking – “Is this the best placement for MY child?” Rather than what is wrong with the school/teacher. Finger pointing is easy to do and deflects from taking personal responsibility.

      Reply
      • Jacqueline Kramer

        Citizen, I am in complete agreement with you. I hope I did not make it seem like I was blaming the teachers or the curriculum.

        Reply
  9. a parent

    It is time for a leadership change in Math Department.

    Reply
  10. citizen

    If a child is stressed in an honors class then the cild should be placed in a less rigorous class. It is not being not prepared as much as it is not the correct placement for that child. Honors classes should be for a select number of students who are capable of doing the work.

    Reply
    • Eg parent

      The math department needs to step up their game

      Reply
      • Parent

        Eg parent…just curious – How could the math department step up their game?

        Reply
    • Concerned Parent

      Crowded classes, stressed teachers and lack of source materials are negatively affecting the honors AND non-honors classes. The solutions are not always merely a placement issue.

      Reply
  11. EG Resident

    Thanks for coming forward, I was concerned from the 1st day of school with negative comments from the algebra 8th grade teacher, “Most of you students will fail this Algebra class and you have to move back to low math.” From that day, my son came home with fear and stress that he would fail that class. However, I did raise my voice indirectly to the superintendent, school committee and the principal, but unfortunately I think the problem is the teacher not the students. The fact is you folks can tell me what school in the planet would let the 8th grade Algebra teacher walk into the class keep eating, drinking more than focusing teaching the students? I think we all have to get together and bring this issue to the state level. Not to forget most of our tax money goes to public schools and we are not getting the valuable education for our children in this town. 🙁

    Reply
  12. concerned citizen

    “Although algebra learning cannot explain the differences between U.S. and Chinese students’ mathematical thinking, the Chinese students’ early successful introduction of algebraic concepts is still worth investigating. It might be important to document and analyze how the Chinese curriculum and instructional practices support elementary school students’ development of algebraic thinking by helping them progress smoothly from arithmetic to algebraic thinking, thereby helping them appreciate the usefulness of algebraic approaches in problem solving. Although we cannot directly translate a successful practice in one culture to another, there is no doubt that the examination of the practice in one nation can provide a broader point of view on how algebraic concepts should be treated in early grades. Such an international perspective can increase researchers’ and teachers’ experiences in the other nations when they face challenges in developing students’ algebraic thinking in elementary school.

    http://www.researchgate.net/publication/257238607_Why_do_U.S._and_Chinese_students_think_differently_in_mathematical_problem_solving_Impact_of_early_algebra_learning_and_teachers_beliefs

    Reply
  13. Eg

    I am unhappy with the math department and the algebra 1 teacher does not teach the students well

    Reply
    • EG Brother

      A whopping portion of the material was not taught in class. My sister came home and just had to teach herself most of it. Of course, that’s good prep for EG high school and life in general.

      Reply
    • Elizabeth McNamara

      BL, are you asking anyone/everyone to take this survey?

      Reply
      • Bl

        yes anyone and everyone- This particular one is for adults-now that so many have responded I have a good base of adults and plan to put together one for students (to compare to today’s current student)- it’s quite enlightening and entertaining to see the comments that people are leaving- for example my new favorite – ‘Did you feel that you had to work for an A or B ?-Of course. If good grades were easy you wouldn’t learn anything. ” – I hope you take it and see for yourself!

        Reply
  14. Therese Vezeridis

    Question: how does our Math curriculum compare with Barrington? My 2 sons graduated in 1998 and 2000 when Mary McNulty was Chairperson of Math Dept and I don’t ever recall this problem in Grade 8 Math. Why don’t you check in with the curriculum in Barrington and check in with Mary McNulty? As a real estate agent, I am constantly faced with prospective Buyers who check out homes in East Greenwich vs Barrington – but their search first starts with comparing the public School Systems.

    Reply
    • parent

      @Elizabeth, Can you please ask these questions?

      Reply
      • Elizabeth McNamara

        I will look into it.

        Reply
  15. Therese Vezeridis

    Question: Any Follow-up to my previous Question: How does our Math curriculum compare with Barrington? I’m reading about the 8th Grade Math problem in the Pendulum. Is the Superintendent of EG Schools aware of this situation? What about Deborah Gist?

    Reply
    • Elizabeth McNamara

      Therese, on Monday night, School Committeeman David Osbourne asked that 8th grade math and the math program in general be on a future School Committee agenda. We will continue to follow this story.

      Reply
      • parent

        Was there a discussion?

        Reply
  16. eg parent

    Superintendent, Mr. Podraza and Mrs. Meyer are aware of the complaints against the math department over the years. It is time for them to decide if they want to have the students’ best interest in heart.

    Reply
  17. Therese Vezeridis

    A Future School Committee agenda? This school year is already half finished. And how does the Barrington curriculum compare with EGHS 8th grade Math. I know former Cole principal Joe Militello was a substitute principal at Barrington several years ago. What is input of Chairperson of Math Department at EGHS?

    Reply
  18. eg parent

    @Therese, Your comment will stir up a hornet’s nest. You can ask any EGHS graduate, student or parent about the chairperson.

    Reply
  19. Eg

    Both math teachers on riptide and eclipse do not teach the students at all

    Reply

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