Last August, Kelsey Sheehy (@KelseyLSheehy) published “Failing a High School Algebra Class ‘isn’t the End of the World’ in US News and World Report. In the article she discusses the arguments of a couple of critics who are essentially arguing that it is time to reassess the long-held tradition that algebra is an mandatory part of a high school mathematics curriculum.
From the article:
“Algebra requirements trip up otherwise talented students and are the academic instigators behind the nation’s high school and college dropout rates, argues Andrew Hacker, an emeritus professor at CUNY–Queens College and author of the much-debated article.” (Sheehy, 2012)
“Hacker argues that students should understand basic arithmetic, but memorizing complex mathematic formulas bring little value to society. “There is no evidence that being able to prove (x ² + y ²) ² = (x ² – y ²) ² + (2xy) ² leads to more credible political opinions or social analylsis,” Hacker writes.”
Sheehy is referencing Mr. Hacker’s Op-Ed from the NY Times dated July 28, 2012, which has generated a rather strong response. The comments number 477 and are closed. Some of them are less than cordial. There have also been blog responses like this (which also got 20 comments).
The last paragraph of his piece makes no bones about his point-of-view:
“Yes, young people should learn to read and write and do long division, whether they want to or not. But there is no reason to force them to grasp vectorial angles and discontinuous functions. Think of math as a huge boulder we make everyone pull, without assessing what all this pain achieves. So why require it, without alternatives or exceptions? Thus far I haven’t found a compelling answer.” (Hacker, 2012)
It would seem that the policy-makers across the country would disagree with him, but I’m not sure our policy-makers are any more equipped to make that decision than Mr. Hacker.
I’m also considering Dan Meyer’s (@ddmeyer) rather engaging line: “I’m a high school algebra teacher. I sell a product to a market that doesn’t want it, but is forced by law to buy it.”
So what gives? If Algebra is driving up failure rates, driving down student motivation, and, as Mr. Hacker asserts, isn’t actually useful (a very debatable point but perhaps a debate worth having), why do we continue to insist that Algebra continue to be mandatory?
And if it is going to continue to be mandatory (which might be the right thing to do), what can we do to make it more universally accessible?
Perhaps the question of why algebra is mandatory should give way to the much more meaningful discussion: Why do kids hate it so much and how do we fix that problem?