Hitting the Middle School Algebra Wall

algebra helpThe majority of the million online tutoring sessions Tutor.com provides each year are in math and more specifically in algebra. Over the last decade, students take algebra earlier and earlier. Today, we find most middle school students are enrolled in pre-algebra or algebra classes. So we were interested in reviewing a new study from Harvard University that found students moving from grade 5 into middle school show a “sharp drop” in math and language arts achievement. This persists through 10th grade and may even hurt their ability to graduate high school and attend college.

While the study focuses on grade configuration and school transition, we see trends too with middle school students. For the first time in their academic lives, students hit the wall – the pre-algebra and algebra wall. That wall is hard and it leaves marks on the best of students.

Research shows that while approximately 16 percent of all U.S. 13-year-olds (the age at which many students are in eighth grade) were enrolled in algebra in 1986, this figure rose to 22 percent in 1999 and to 29 percent in 2004 (Perie, Moran, and Lutkus 2005). Over the past decade, we find more students are taking algebra even earlier, some beginning in sixth grade.

When kids hit that wall, many come to us and here’s what they say:

“No one can help me”: Many good students have informal academic support systems consisting of parents, older siblings or cousins and sometimes friends. That support system tends to fall apart with algebra. Parents don’t remember it and many say they were never that good at math to begin with. Students have less people to turn to and they start to see their grades drop.

“I don’t even know where to start”: We talk to students and read comments all the time that say they sit at home staring at the algebra homework and truly have no idea what they are doing or if they are headed in the right or wrong direction. They get frustrated and some simply give up.

“The teacher moves too fast”: As teachers tackle the problem of completing many concepts with a room of diverse learners, some students can’t keep up. Some students say they don’t understand the examples and techniques used in class. If they miss mastering a few concepts, soon they fall further and further behind.

“I don’t want to look dumb”: While third graders may bolster their raised hands and beg to be called upon, 7th graders tend to sit in the back and hope to go unnoticed. No one wants to ask a dumb or embarrassing question in front of their peers and friends.

What helps students get over these challenges? Immediate, differentiated and private support. When students use online tutoring for help they can tackle one question and one concept at a time and never feel embarrassed. By nature of the one-to-one relationship with a tutor, they can try different explanations and techniques until the content clicks for the student. And that’s all many students really need—the opportunity to have an “I get it” moment. And suddenly a door opens in the wall and they walk through.

“At first I had no idea where to start, I didn’t know what I was doing. I was just confused with my algebra, but after I had help from Tutor.com, I knew exactly what I was doing. Thanks tutor.com, you saved my life.” – 8th Grade Algebra student

Want to learn more about how Tutor.com helps students struggling with algebra?  Read Melissa and Kennedy’s math stories.


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