Is eighth grade too soon to introduce Minnesota students to algebra?

A study released last week by the Washington, D.C.-based Brookings Institution says many students at that age are unprepared to do the work. It questions moves by Minnesota and California to require eighth-grade algebra and worries that the ambitious goal could be more damaging than helpful.

Despite the warning from Brookings, Minnesota should stay the course. Today's students need math skills in order to move on to calculus and trigonometry in high school. In addition, an increasing number of jobs require stronger math, science and technical backgrounds. American workers need those skills to compete in the global economy.

Rather than back away from the standard, more should be done to teach basic math in the earlier grades, support teacher training and provide resources for more advanced mathematics instruction.

The Brookings report did reveal several issues that demand attention. Nationally, 31 percent of eighth-graders took algebra last year, nearly double the 1990 rate. But researchers found, based on 2005 test data, that more than 120,000 students are sitting in algebra classes even though they scored in the bottom 10 percent on basic math tests. Many of them know about as much math as an average second-grader.

A national push for more math instruction that began in the 1990s has resulted in improved overall math test scores, but the rise is not across the board. Although today's eighth-graders performed better than students in 2000, the study says most in advanced math courses know less.

Adding to the problem, struggling algebra pupils are more likely to have teachers with less experience, fewer credentials and weaker training. In too many cases, under-prepared students are being taught by poorly prepared teachers.

"Unless a kid is ready for a real algebra course, you do one of two things: Either you give the kid a low grade, which means you're admitting the kid wasn't prepared, or you make the course watered-down," Vern Williams, a nationally recognized math teacher in Fairfax County, Va., told the Associated Press.

Neither option leads to improved mathematics education.

Too many eighth-graders don't have a firm grasp of multiplication tables and long division. Without that knowledge, taking a more advanced class sets them up for failure. As the report points out, when students arrive in class with the skills of a second-grader, no one can teach in one year what has not been learned in six -- and teach algebra as well.

That's why it is essential to improve math instruction throughout the elementary years. To that end, the state of Minnesota has wisely established state-funded academies for math and science teachers to help them do a better job with the basics.

Adding rigor to American education is a worthy goal. But it must be done with the right instructional support to help students develop the foundation of skills they need to succeed.