Since then, there’s been a trend towards introducing algebra material to younger and younger students, in the hopes that by getting them primed earlier for algebraic thinking and giving them more years of algebra instruction, more students will “get” algebra by the time they graduate high school.
Algebra I is pretty much an eight grade standard now. This sounds like progress until you look at what’s happened to Algebra 2, which has become a watered-down version of itself that might better be called Algebra 1.5, because most of it is a reteaching of the Algebra I content that students didn’t master the first time around. It’s not clear to me that we’ve gained much by accelerating the algebra curriculum en masse.
My impression is that most kids are simply not developmentally ready for formal algebra instruction until they enter high school (and as many as half are not ready even then). Brains make a huge developmental leap at roughly age twelve, and younger kids aren’t capable of the kind of abstract thinking algebra requires.
Besides, most students enter algebra without being solid in their middle school math skills, and so they wind up heaping sophisticated new concepts and procedures on top of an already shaky math foundation. This is how students learn to hate and fear math and grow up avoiding exciting careers in math and science.
Having said all this, individual kids vary greatly in their mathematical development (and it is this broad range of individual readiness that, to my mind, presents the biggest challenge in effective math instruction). Some students are absolutely ready for Algebra I in 8th grade and a few are ready in 7th or even 6th grade.
If you do decide you accelerate your child, make sure she’s got a very solid pre-algebra foundation (summer is the perfect time to reinforce these skills!).
Also, be prepared to give him some extra support during the school year, because even the smartest kids may not automatically also have the self-discipline and study skills needed to coursework designed for older students.
Here are two very good articles from Education Week