What if this is actually true…?

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)

She continues:

“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?

6 thoughts on “What if this is actually true…?

  1. Perhaps a vestigial remains of our Puritan culture that supposes all good things must come with pain, and that things that come with pain must have some good thing involved with them?

    • While I suppose you might be onto something, I hope that you aren’t because I’m trying to make Algebra less painful, which, by your rationale, would likewise make it less useful.

  2. Hi there fellow thoughtful blogger. I tried to address the same question here http://zicker63.blogspot.com after reading about some remarkable people. I asked, ” can you teach Algebra and still be a good human?” Many dear friends from MFA’S to JD’s to lay people tried to humor me. You may find it a worthy read. Beyond my sheer passion that I can make Algebra interesting…I am not sure I do agree it is for everyone…at least not when he or she is 13 or 14 years old.

    • Well, I certainly think that there are some agreed-upon standards that fit into the high school curriculum, like algebra and Shakespeare and the Age of Exploration that seem to be ever-present. That could mean that it goes without saying that they belong. It could also mean that we are stuck to the tradition regarding them and the debate needs to be opened. I feel that Algebra is useful, but not for the skills. If you want to go backwards into my “Useless” math classes series (there’s five of them), I spell out what I feel is the value of math class. And slope, properties of equality, and factoring quadratics weren’t among the selling points.

  3. Algebra leads to Calculus, ask any professor and Calculus is the gold standard that leads to the fun stuff with mathematics. Unfortunately, there’s no short-cut to go from arithmetic to Calculus. Many people talk about “real world” problems, but most of them are calc based or need a deeper understanding of higher mathematics. I see algebra as the foundations of calculus, kinda like what high school football is to college football, and what college football is to the NFL.

    • So, Rich, if you are right, how do we scaffold the lower levels to create the kind of engaging contexts that students need out of the lower levels?

      How do we make high school football as fun for the participants as the NFL?

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