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Why is algebra so important?

Algebra is known as a gatekeeper subject, so when should your child take it?

By GreatSchools Staff

Last fall results from national math exams stirred up a tempest in a standardized test. It turns out math scores rose more quickly before No Child Left Behind was implemented, and fourth-grade math scores haven’t improved since 2007. As reported in the New York Times, the achievement gap remains a chasm between the haves and the have-nots.

What does this mean for your child? While pundits and politicians battle over the big issues, it's up to parents to stay on top of the little ones: their own kids' academic development. Make sure your tween or teen is on track for high school math with this guide to algebra.

Why algebra matters

It is frequently called the gatekeeper subject. It is used by professionals ranging from electricians to architects to computer scientists. It is no less than a civil right, says Robert Moses, founder of the Algebra Project, which advocates for math literacy in public schools.

Basic algebra is the first in a series of higher-level math classes students need to succeed in college and life. Because many students fail to develop a solid math foundation, an alarming number of them graduate from high school unprepared for college or work. Many end up taking remedial math in college, which makes getting a degree a longer, costlier process than it is for their more prepared classmates. And it means they're less likely to complete a college-level math course. For middle-schoolers and their parents, the message is clear: It's easier to learn the math now than to relearn it later.

The first year of algebra is a prerequisite for all higher-level math: geometry, algebra II, trigonometry, and calculus. According to a study (pdf) by the educational nonprofit ACT, students who take algebra I, geometry, algebra II, and one additional high-level math course are much more likely to do well in college math.

Algebra is not just for the college-bound. Even high school graduates headed straight for the work force need the same math skills as college freshmen, the ACT found. This study looked at occupations that don't require a college degree but pay wages high enough to support a family of four. Researchers found that math and reading skills required to work as an electrician, plumber, or upholsterer were comparable to those needed to succeed in college.

Algebra is, in short, the gateway to success in the 21st century. What's more, when students make the transition from concrete arithmetic to the symbolic language of algebra, they develop abstract reasoning skills necessary to excel in math and science.

Comments from readers

""The calculator is an instructional tool,� says Fennell. “It should support but not supplant anything. You don't use it for 6 x 7." Far too many administrators believe that research indicates that rote memory should never be used as a learning tool when in fact the research indicates that it should not be the only learning tool. I have had math teachers tell me that they would be fired if they required students to memorize anything. Math instruction goes awry when educrats and eduticians begin directing when and how math is taught. Prerequisites are necessary to a solid foundation in math and when those prerequisites are circumvented math education becomes a political and bureaucratic dog and pony show. Welcome to NCLB and the Race to the Top. That's show business not education. "
"Algebra isn't a higher level math. Disuade yourself of the belief. Higher level math begins at real analysis, or Advanced Calc, and is based largely on proofing. Even basic differential, integral, and multi variable calculus is lower level math. These are quit frankly subjects which anyone who puts in the time and effort can master. Higher level math's are the cutting board for separating those who can handle higher man, from those who can't. Unfortunately America has fallen so behind in math skills that Algebra (A building block for learning to do math) is unknown by a large portion of the population. This has lead to a dumbing down of Math in America, all the way up through the University level. What is now Advanced Calc, or real analysis, used to be entry University level calculus, and what is now entry University Calculus used to be highschool math. America is that bad off, and it's getting worse. "
"you need to solve t=some problems interesting but need to put or add some flare to it.... "
"Math is a great subject until you hit precalc and calc. My Chemistry, software engineering, and all the computer courses required only a college algebra's worth of math. I would say Trig is useful as long as its not abstract. It doesn't make sense to have the authors of a math book claim that the book is full of real world examples but when you take the math exam only a single question actually applies to the real world and everything else is so abstract that you will never use it in your life. "
"Ok so if you become a rocket scientist or "electricians"?!?! When was the last time a electrician had to use any of the BS they feed us in class. Im confedent enough to say a good majority of jobs DONT need it and the select few that needs to know why x+y somehow equals 4. After multiplication math becomes nothing but school work youll never use algebra... playing and simple its pointless "
"Thank you for this article. It really help me in my assignment. "
"Algebra is a lot of fun! I just never understood why I will need it. This article helps! Thank you! "
"My 2nd grader is doing pre-algebra and has math on her mind all the time...we also work on verbal analogies at home. My 6th grader is doing algebra too. Never too early...get 'em while their brains are open and elastic, just like we do with foreign languages."
"Pre-algebraic strategies have begun to be taught at kinder level. The strategies advance as the grade level advances. In the third and fourth grades the Math goes as such: 4+x = 8. X is the unknown digit for the sum of 8. This is a pre-algebraic problem. Yes, algebra is very important. Algebra I & II should be taken in high school. You should not be worried about your child. However, if you are, arrange for tutoring. If I can be of any help, please let me know. Sincerely, Trini Vaquera, B.S., M.ed."
"Does algebra matter? Yes, and it does very much so. So check out the book samples in this site:"
"I really understand what this is saying, but is it good for my child to begin Algebra I in 7th grade? I know what South Carolina's curriculum is, but I'm worried that I'm pushing my daughter to much."
"If a child cannot multiply or divide or percentages he will never be able to do algebra the end of the subject so maybe they should actually make sure the kids have the basic math background that is not provided from our wonderful schools time to actually be in the classroom instead of off every 2 weeks because the poor poor teachers have to work so hard ha ha no other profession has that amount of time off we work for a living"
"This is an interesting article, this all sounds great but some of us actually have brains that never get Algebra to a great degree, even after years of trying, tutoring and struggles. We must understand the basic of Algebra, such as how to solve an equation, the order of operation etc. Most of jobs now required or use the same equation over and over. So if we know the basics, we will learn on that equation needed in that certain job and of course we used it over and over again."
"I have heard through my son's Algebra 11 teacher that Harvard is not accepting students who have had CPM math in high school, because they are not able to perform at the level expected. This is very scary for many districts in the US whose school boards have arrogantly ignored the complaints of both parents and schools, yet wring their hands about the poor math scores out there, and yet still insist that CPM is the way to go. It is setting us up for national failure! Once again, certain students will have to go through the trial and error process and suffer the consequences until it is finally changed back to a more traditional approach. Teachers are hired to TEACH, and CPM does not enforce that idea. There are many teacher's upset about this approach as well!"
"The comments regarding students not learning the basics before launching into algebra are SO true. I teach Algebra 2 and Precalculus and most of my students still can't add 2 and -3 without a calculator. Fractions and decimals? They just skip right over most of those. It hasn't always been this way, but this past decade's children were shortchanged in the area of mathematics. "
" child is not excelling in math and is in the 12th grade. She is horrible with algebra and lacks certain math skills. She does not feel comfortable doing math unless she has a calculator. She has had this problem since the 9th grade and I have been a diligent parent with my child and school teachers. I have supported her thru tutoring and summer school. She does not get nor does she likes math. PS She excells in everything else except algebra! Now what?"
"This all sounds great but some of us actually have brains that never get Algebra to a great degree, even after years of trying, tutoring and struggles. Then there is the whole issue of right brain versus left brain and how most gifted learn. Right brain and many gifted predominantly learn in different ways needing unique teaching styles. For great info on this read 'Right- Brained Children in a Left-Brained World' by Freed and Parsons and 'The Gift of Dyslexia'. Sadly this is being largely neglected or ignored within the educational world. Some of these techniques have made a world of difference in kids who have lost hope and confidence in themselves."
"We start algebra around 4th grade in the Montessori school in which I teach. We use physical objects (Mortensen math materials) to represent x2, x, and units, first with linear algebra and then with more difficult forms. The students see what they're doing and have a visual representation of what x2+2x+1 and its factors look like. Gradually they move to abstraction. We have equipment we use for teaching mathematical operations, fractions, decimals, etc. Each child receives individual lessons, moving on when they have mastered the lesson. "
"Algebra teaches/reinforces critical thinking skills; whereas, some subjects foster rote memorization and others directly apply to 'life outside the classroom.' Of course, it might be nice ONLY to take subjects we feel (at age 14 or 34) will apply directly to life/business. Unfortunately, none of us know explicitly what life holds for us and what we'll 'need.' "
"BS about the need for advanced math. Yes you must understand the basics of Alg, such as how to solve an equation, the order of operations, etc. Most jobs will use the same equations over and over. So if you know basics, you will learn that equation needed in that certain job and use it over and over again. I'm almost 60 years old and people have been applying skills to trades such as electricians, carpenters, etc. long before the push for all kids to take trig and calc. It is propaganda put out by school administrators. Plus the system used for math teaching is terrible. It is called College Preparatory Math (CPM) and is a corporation in California. If you search online you will find many math teachers do not like it. It has failed to teach many, many children and will continue to fail. Oh the CPM has their stats but you know the old saying about stats. My son is in summer school for Alg 2. He is in 11th grade and failed it last year. He must get a passing grade to graduate. He has enough credits to graduate now, is taking his third year of Japanese (college credits) and has a 3.5 average in Japanese. His GPA puts him on the honor roll but Alg way. We had to pay $130 for summer school. Yesterday I found out that there is no alg teacher in summer school. It is all on computer. They read and then take tests. If he could understand Alg 2 by a self taught method, would he be in summer school? No I don't think so. I am very, very ticked off about no teacher. We always hear about the disadvantage because US kids don't have the science/math skills of Asian kids. Ok, imagine if today all the kids had a GPA of 4 in Calc and Physics, what would change? Nothing would change because there aren't enough jobs in this world that need the disciplines for Calc. and physics. My son did ok in Alg 1 and geometry. Alg1 - 3 Geometry -3 The last time I had Alg2 was in 1989, received a B (didn't give numerical grades back then) and they taught the class for an entire school year. Now in my son's school you must complete Alg 2 in one semester and chemistry in one semester (same for alg1 and geometry). It is only math teachers that think the world revolves around factoring polynomials. Aside from disciplines such as engineering, I will stand here and say that 98% of all Alg2 equations will never be used again once a child enters the real world. "
"Some kids just don't get math, at least the way it's taught in the USA in public schools. My son has struggled from K-10, has taken algebra twice & is still failing. As a result, he's a despondent 2nd yr freshman. We spend hours on homework, have had tutors, meetings with the school, had him tested for a learning disability (which dif. psychologists say dif. things) to no avail. He's looking at year 3 of algebra II if he doesn't pass (& he's only got half the scores, so it doesn't look good). I would love to blame somebody, but what good does that do? Now I'm wondering whether he'll be the first to fail HS cuz he can't pass algebra. We're looking at alternative schools now. By the way, those comments written here about blaming the teachers are idiotic. I have 4 siblings who are teachers in poor, minority districts. Their students have crack, drunken mothers, absent or abusive fathers, no money, no role models, roaches & rats in the school, gangs and fights every day. How can these kids possibly pass govt mandated tests the same way the rest of 'normal' kids do? The principals and superintendents get their jobs as political appointees without ever having to have taught a day in the classroom. How stupid to blame the teachers. What moron wrote that comment on this page? Rush Limbaugh or Sean Hannity pushing the RepubliCANT agenda?"
"How long do our kids have to suffer with poor math teachers from middle school to high school? Throw out the tenure (and the unions while your at it), to get rid of the dead wood & start raising the salaries to compete with industry and then start adopting Singapore's new math teaching methods which work. Our methods do not work."
"I'm frustrated withe the CA math curriculum: 1) 'Exposing' kids to advanced topics early, before they learned the basic concepts to master those topics, is a waste of time, frustrates the kids, and limits the amount of time spent learning/teaching the basics, which are KEY to future success in math. 2) Way too much time is spent on algebra -- Pre-Algebra, Alg 1 and Alg 2. Teach it once, thoroughly, and move on. We had algebra in 7th grade when I was a kid and it never seemed to be a problem for most kids. That is, if they learned their basics thoroughly (see #1). Geometry/Trig was 8th, and then start into pre-Calc, Calc in high school. That leaves more time for Calc which is abstract, complicated and critical for doing well on AP tests -- the Math AP test being a primary selection parameter for many premium colleges. "
"Clearbrook Mom I hope you found a way out as you posted this summer and well now it's fall. I would call and find out what educational representatives there are for your district and find out what they say are your rights with them and file a petition. Also, there are usually free legal clinics or clinics at a low cost to consult an attorney, that could be a route to go. If you talk to an educational represetative through your district ask to see the policies governing this decision, and where to look up possible legislation. "
"I am shocked at the lack of intelligence of some of the people leaving these comments! God help us all if these are the same people who are, or are raising, our future leaders. 8th grade Algebra I teacher, Memphis, TN."
"this is a really good reading system "
"I have two daughters in Middle School. I believe that MATH is really about the instruction. My 8th grader hated math in 6th grade - crappy teacher - in 7th grade she had a very strict, but extremely competent teacher who made her like math; she was put into Honors Math in 8th grade an is taking the regents and is going into Geometry Honors for 9th grade. A success story for sure.... and guess what, now she loves MATH! My 6th grader has another crappy Math Teacher. She is doing ok but hates MAth. I am going to request the teacher who 'made a Difference' to my other daughter. I am getting my 6th grader tutoring help as we are loooking into propeling her ahead for the summer and studing 7th grade Math at a learning center so she comes in a little ahead for 7th grade. it is a competitve world and technology is flying quickly. Even if your child is not going to be a DR. or Scientist, math teaches critical thinking and will be used for many fields, BTW both of my daughters are accomplished musicians, the music really helps with developing the 'LEFT' side of the brain. Studies have proven. Yes, not eveyonr is college material, but, it is in the best interest of the future for your child, to challenge them to be the best they can be! "
" Many California school districts use Math textbooks that emphasize Algebra in the 6th grade editions. In my experience students are struggling. (standardized tests as proof) As a result , Algebra is being introduced at too early an age when students have not mastered the basic Math concepts."
"this is sweet i would love to have my kids go here when the get oldrer Go Jesus"
"My eighth grade daughter has received A's on test and report cards in 7th and eighth grade. Her teacher says that she should be going into pre-algebra in 9th grade. She is going to a Catholic school, so we expected her to be going into Agebra 1. Does this sound normal? To top it off, her teacher reccomends for her to see a tudor this Summer (their are only 6 kids in her math class). She also has received a 3.9 on her last report card. I would appreciate any feedback. Thank you"
" I think this is rediculouss ther arw alot of kids headed for a fall and its wonder ful to be able to enjoy school and have fun learning and it would be wonderful if we all could be one of those highly educated over paid jack asses that were the bullies in high school we live in a litle northern town and 90 percent of the students are not college materal why do they need it i would rather see the Vacational classes put back into our schools we are still goingto be just ordinary peoplethere are all kinds of people in the worl who do alot for us with out the assistace of algedr geometry and biology or phisical science we have the those kinds of people who fix thier cars. we are still going to be home makers and all of us who didnt go to college and went to Vocation scholls turned out ok and even if my child was college material we are like alot of parents up here who cant afford it! And my daughter has a hard enough of a time with fracttions and long division because they ! have taught her how to use a calculater rather than her brain and now she struggles and gets frustrated with the assingments in school .In the near future see alot of drop outs because the work is just to difficult and school is hard enough if your not smart beautiful or athletic you are tortured beyond belief and nothing is done . The new curriclium will only compound the problem and those who cant handle it ,who dont drop out will most likely commet suicide or become drugies what are they going to do then ? Blame the Parents as usual ! ? why cant we have a say in how and what are kids are taught . i hope they make it so all kids will prosper and stay in scool and graduate and enjoy thier last years of child hood ! "
"Precise and to the point. My 9th grader is a straight A student in MEGSSS Algebra II and I am pointing this article out to her so that she does't forget why she needs it. Lack of math skills is one of the main failures of our educaaational system."
"what if your child has no intention of going to college why does he/she need to have algabra in child hates it and it only causes problems at home,because she doesnt want to learn it and says shes never going to use it because shes not going to college. what should i do? this class is bringing her selfesteme down because of her grades."
"I feel Algebra is keeping a high number of students from getting a good education. Because a high number of students will go to vocational schools and by that time their brains are 'more ready' (and don't tell me that's bad English. If it is 'way better' is bad English too!)to accept the math they need to make a good income. In lower schooling they are busy trying survive the pitfalls of adolescence, bullies, and the lack of teacher interactions because they are set in their ways, and 'If you don't do it my way, its the highway'. Give the kids a break and allow them to enjoy getting their education."
"I agree 100% with the basic premise of the article, but I do not believe that all students need to master Algebra to the same level. There are students who will pusue lives that never require solution of the dreaded 'word problem.' There should be some type of functional math that is the minimum needed to function as an adult. And I want to add Statistics to this idea. I teach a course labeled 'Survival Statistics' in which the premise is that they may be lying to you and here is how to protect yourself. An intorductory course in statistics should be provided to every public school student. Not equations and proofs, but applications and how the same data can be used to arrive at various conclusions."
"An excellent write-up. Where can I get curriculun for Basic Algebra,Algebra I and AlgebraII from ? Thanks! Suresh. India"
"Where do I get information on getting a algebra tutor?"
"I think your website is very informative and I congratulate you for a thorough job. However, I think you miss something with 'Why is Algebra a big deal'. It is valuable, along with other mathematics courses through calculus for these three BIG reasons: 1. It helps students deal with abstract concepts. 2. It helps students develop their problem-solving skills. 3. It helps students learn how to read technical material (quite different than reading a novel!) and make sense of it. In short, we (mathematics instructors) are developing the students' left-side brain. "
"My kids' schools down in Georgia are not good compared to the education I received up north in a Great School. It's almost as if the culture down here doesn't put emphasis on making good grades, as well as the importance of college prep programs in high schools. Just the other day my teenaged stepchild asked why he needed math if he wants to be a professional singer. I told him it was a core upon which to build analytical and abstract thinking, and that math is used in some way, for many things we do. It is an important foundation and when our kids are having trouble in math, they need to get good help and extra homework so they finally 'get' it. I hated math as a child, and I was not very good at it. I realized the importance of needing a good math background when I was in college and had to learn chemistry and physiology in my nursing studies. I ended up taking a remedial course so I could pas in other studies which required that math background."
"Interesting article. I'm not a parent but a Maths teacher with long teaching experience in India and Singapore.Regarding the use of calculator,in India children calculate fast without calculator. In Singapore, they have two Maths papers at O Level(Xth level) exam.: one that tests concepts with easy manual calculations and the other with use of calculator allowed. BTW, the reactions show that one thing is common...Maths is a nightmare for many students all over the world."
"my son has struggled with math forever. He is in ninth grade and is failing miserably.He has never understood all of it and has explained that to teachers.He has been given less work..which he still dosen't understand..he has NEVER passed a math he feels defeated.and has totaly given up..So the system continues to use the same methods of teaching!!!! Yes, he has attention deficit so everything is all jumbled with the numbers etc"