Requiring all 14-year-olds to study algebra regardless of their ability can harm their mathematical development, new research has shown.
Two separate research studies from the US have shown that changes made to toughen up state curricula are having unintended consequences. The studies arrive as the maths curriculum in England is being reviewed; getting the teaching of algebra right has already been identified as a priority for secondary schools.
In 2002, one county in North Carolina, US, introduced algebra for eighth-grade pupils (the equivalent of Year 9) for two years. After the two years, eighth-grade pupils were no longer taught algebra. This gave academics at Duke University the chance to compare the performance of pupils who had similar initial achievement.
The conclusion of their study is important for anyone interested in maths teaching. It found that moderately performing eighth-grade pupils who took the ninth-grade algebra course performed worse in that course, and in other maths courses later in their school careers, than those who did not take the course.
The researchers concluded that the early teaching of more advanced maths, without any strategy to prepare pupils, could damage their chances of understanding the subject long-term.
Now, a separate study in California has reached similar conclusions. It found that pupils in the bottom 10 per cent of their class gained lower maths scores than expected if they were taught algebra in the eighth grade, rather than in the ninth grade.
About three-quarters of the 2,000 low-ability pupils in the study took algebra-only courses and achieved an average grade of C- over the year, while similar pupils learning general maths gained an average grade of C.
The study's authors, from UC Davis School of Education, warned that, while teaching algebra early is a laudable aim, a universal policy can "academically harm" some pupils.
The conclusions of both reports should make interesting reading for education secretary Michael Gove, who has said that he would like algebra and calculus to be studied at a younger age in the UK.
A report published by the Department for Education earlier this year, as part of the review of the national curriculum, said that English and American pupils at age 14 performed at a comparable level in algebra, although both countries were placed relatively low in international rankings. The report also found that only a minority of high-performing countries introduced algebraic concepts any earlier.
Rob Eastaway, an author and maths consultant, said that the concerns expressed in the US studies about pupils' ability in algebra were reflected on this side of the Atlantic.
"I know from doing a lot of surveys with teenagers, it is the number one thing (they) say they find difficult or dull," he said. "Talking to teachers, they say children are coming out of GCSE with an A* and yet go on to sixth form and the thing they are weakest at is algebra."
Professor David Reynolds of the University of Southampton said that any policy implications would rest on educationalists being able to pick up on the particular problems that low-ability children were having with algebra.
"My inclination with maths generally is to wait for the next Pisa (Programme for International Student Assessment) survey in December 2013 and look at how countries with different curricula in maths do," he said.
"The reason algebra is started in most societies at around 13 or 14 is because of the inherent difficulty that younger children find in doing it."
The concerns coming out of the US that accelerating pupils' maths learning can harm their long-term prospects also echoes worries about early entry to GCSE maths in England. Fewer than 5 per cent of Year 10 pupils took the exam in 2005, compared with almost a quarter last year. Statistics show that early-entry candidates perform worse overall than those who are not entered early.