Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Universal language or joke?

Contributed by Alexander Koldobsky

The quality of the secondary math education in the United States has long become a standard joke among mathematicians around the world. It is very painful to see how the most powerful country trails behind European, Asian and third world countries in the level of mathematical
skills of high school graduates.

To my opinion, the major reason is that, unlike many countries, algebra is not included in the middle school curriculum in the United States. Algebra was invented a few thousand years ago as the universal language of mathematics, allowing to avoid lengthy word explanations of mathematical procedures and making mathematical studies logical and connected. It is
essential that the students start learning algebra as early as in the 5th grade, which brings mathematical formulas to them naturally later in their lives. It is still possible for the best students to start algebra in the 8th grade and be successful, but in general American students continue looking at mathematics as a foreign language. I think the switch to starting algebra in the 5th grade must be made as soon as possible, by adopting a system used in one of the countries like Russia, France or Germany. American students are as smart as anybody, and they and their teachers will quickly adjust to this system.

The so-called Connected Mathematics Project, Integrated Math and other recent innovations are even worse than the "traditional" American system. They further water down the curriculum and leave the students largely unprepared for college mathematics. Instead of bringing our children back to the level of "ancient Greeks playing with stones on the beach,"
American math education must quickly switch to the most advanced methods of mathematical learning.

Alexander Koldobsky is a math professor with fifteen years of experience in teaching mathematics at the college level in the US and a parent of two children who went all the way through the American educational system. His opinions are his own, and we welcome discussion of the issues he raises.


Anonymous said...

At 5th grade, are kids brains developmentally ready to learn Algebra?

Michelle Pruitt said...

A lot of what makes a child "developmentally ready" is how much preparation and practice they have with the foundations of algebra. Mastery of math facts and fluency in manipulating fractions frees up brain power so kids can move on to higher level thinking and abstract concepts. Continuing to rely on primitive methods of computation like counting on fingers and using manipulatives interferes with higher level thinking and problem solving.