"It's like the birth of everything. That's where it starts."
Algebra is so important that the National Mathematics Advisory Council, appointed by the president, called it a "demonstrable gateway to later achievement."
Robert Moses, founder of the Algebra Project, which for more than two decades has advocated math skills for all, considers learning algebra to be a civil right.
With the shift from industrial to information-age technologies, Mr. Moses said those who don't know algebra will be left out.
"The consequence is that you're not going to be able to participate as a citizen. It's the same consequence as in the 20th century if you couldn't read or write," he said.
Algebraic thinking is done even by people who don't realize they're using algebra.
Maybe they're using a formula -- length times width -- to measure a room. That's algebra.
Or perhaps they're making a chart, table or spreadsheet to compare costs of two cell phone plans. That's algebra, too.
Or they could be tackling a workplace problem, such as a nurse figuring out the proper dosage for a patient of a certain weight. Algebra again.
"There's a certain way of thinking and reasoning that algebra promotes that all people need as adults," said Melissa Boston, assistant professor of mathematics education at Duquesne University.
Algebra -- which can be described as the study of patterns, functions and variables -- is more than a math. The course is a sorting device.
Students who don't take Algebra 1 often aren't placed in other courses that would prepare them for college.
And if students complete just one course beyond Algebra 2 in high school, they can double the odds they will earn a bachelor's degree, according to a national study of student transcripts.
In school districts across southwestern Pennsylvania, more and more students are taking algebra courses, although some still graduate without learning it.
The overall percentage of high school graduates earning a "C" or better in algebra has grown from 65 percent in 2000-01 to 91 percent in 2007-08, the most recent year available, in regional surveys by the Math and Science Collaborative based at the Allegheny Intermediate Unit. The earlier survey included 66 districts; the latter 58.
Nevertheless, in at least one unnamed high school in the survey, as few as a third of a high school's graduates had earned at least a "C" in algebra.
The number of students taking algebra may grow because proposed state requirements calling for public school students to take a state Algebra 1 exam before graduation are making their final rounds.
Already it's virtually impossible to do well on the state Pennsylvania System of School Assessment math test without some algebra. Up to 42 percent of the 11th-grade test covers algebraic concepts.
Ideally, algebraic skills develop long before the first day in an Algebra 1 course.
"They should not confront algebra for the first time in Algebra 1," said Michele Burgess, math coordinator at the Allegheny Intermediate Unit.
Pennsylvania's academic standards for math list 10 "algebraic functions" that students should master by the end of third grade, such as recognizing patterns and using a table or chart to display information.
There is no general agreement on when students should take Algebra 1.
In the 1990s, the Clinton administration pushed for more students to learn algebra by the eighth grade because students in many other countries study algebra in the middle grades.
As a result of those and other efforts, eighth-grade enrollment in Algebra 1 and other advanced math classes rose from 26.7 percent in 2000 to 36.6 percent in 2005, according a report last year by the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution, a public-policy organization based in Washington, D.C.
However, that was detrimental to some children, according to the Brown Center report, which figured 120,000 children nationwide were inappropriately placed in algebra courses, many of whom knew only second-grade math.
"They don't know basic arithmetic. They don't know fractions at all. They don't know decimals. They don't know how to compute with percentages or solve problems with percentages," said Tom Loveless, director of the Brown Center.
"It's hard to see how they're going to be successful."
With unprepared students in class, Mr. Loveless said, "We put teachers in an impossible situation: They can sacrifice the curriculum or they can sacrifice the kids. Most teachers will sacrifice the curriculum. They end up teaching a non-algebra class that's called algebra."
Rather than eighth-grade algebra, Mr. Loveless said he believes a better goal would be ensuring that all students master basic algebra and basic geometry by the time they leave high school.
"We're not even close to that," he said, estimating that only half of high school graduates meet that standard.
Henry Kepner, president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, said the council does not recommend a particular grade level for algebra.
"You should take it when you're ready," he said. "They shouldn't do it in eighth grade just because they're eighth-graders. You need to be able to reason and begin to think abstractly."
Mastering algebra can require work and lots of practice. Wilkinsburg High School algebra teacher Jim Bilka tells students that math is like lifting weights. "You have to put your time in."
But that doesn't mean it has to be torture.
In teacher Beth Luptak's classroom at Jefferson Middle School in Mt. Lebanon, a group of eighth-grade girls in honors algebra high-fived each other when they correctly graphed a problem on a graphing calculator in May.
"I like it," said student Logan Schardt. "It's very factual, and I like facts."
While algebra can be abstract, Mrs. Luptak finds some concrete ways to explain it, such as the annual Bungee Barbie exercise.
Using rubber bands as the bungee cord, students dangle Barbie dolls down a stairwell and collect data on how far they fall, figuring how many rubber bands can be used without the doll hitting its head. They write equations, make tables and do averages.
Mrs. Luptak sees some of her eighth-graders growing into algebra during the year. "It clicks for them. 'Oh, now I get integers.' They start picking up more patterns."
In many schools, technology -- ranging from graphing calculators to sophisticated computer software -- is changing the way algebra is taught.
In Algebra 1 classrooms at Wilkinsburg High School, students work on different levels using Carnegie Learning's Cognitive Tutor, which adapts its lessons for individual students as they master or struggle with various concepts.
The students also can practice concepts using computerized "Gizmos" by ExploreLearning, such as one that enables them to change variables and see immediately how the slope of a line changes.
Wilkinsburg High School algebra teacher Bill Driver said some students are behind when they start -- some don't know that 2/4 is the same as 1/2 -- so he figures that in one year the class covers about 85 percent of the curriculum in some suburban districts.
In many schools, some will need to take algebra again. Mr. Bilka, who teaches mostly ninth-graders, said that 10 percent in one class and 45 percent in the other failed last school year.
He said the question of success or failure is far more complex than simply the grade level in which students start Algebra 1; some students view math as impossible to do or irrelevant to their lives.
In a survey of algebra teachers done by the math panel, nearly two-thirds said that working with unmotivated students was their main challenge.
In the Quaker Valley School District, some students take algebra as early as sixth grade.
"We try to encourage and to push but not to push too much," said Quaker Valley Middle School algebra teacher Jennifer Sahlaney. "We still expect kids to have a solid foundation and be prepared for the next course."
She said some students "work and work and work at it, but they just can't see it at this point in time. Yet when it clicks, you hear it referred to as that ah-ha moment. 'I totally get it now.' "
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