One of the most popular newspaper stories last week was a thought-provoking New York Times article titled “Is Algebra Necessary?” Andrew Hacker, a retired college professor posed and answered a question asked by scores of students hoping to master the terms and language of algebraic expression.
This is not the first time Dr. Hacker’s writings has captured the public’s attention. Over the last 20 years, the spry octogenarian has produced several intriguingly titled books— Two Nations: Black and White, Separate, Hostile, Unequal (1992); Money: Who Has How Much and Why (1998); and Mismatch: The Growing Gulf Between Women and Men (2003).
Dr. Hacker’s most recent work, co-authored with Claudia Dreifus is “Higher Education: How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids - and What We Can Do About It” was published in 2010. Among other things, the authors question higher education sacred cows such as tenured professorships and dismiss the value of university-based research.
The algebra article was no doubt, inspired by issues raised in the book. It is a thoughtful examination of one of the guiding principles of college curriculums: students must demonstrate higher-level mathematics competency. Dr. Hacker not only dismisses this notion, he believes the “algebra requirement” creates an insurmountable barrier for many students, thereby robbing many young people of the education they deserve.
Part I of “Is Algebra Necessary” by Andrew Hacker:
A typical American school day finds some six million high school students and two million college freshmen struggling with algebra. In both high school and college, all too many students are expected to fail. Why do we subject American students to this ordeal? I’ve found myself moving toward the strong view that we shouldn’t.
My question extends beyond algebra and applies more broadly to the usual mathematics sequence, from geometry through calculus. State regents and legislators— and much of the public— take it as self-evident that every young person should be made to master polynomial functions and parametric equations.
There are many defenses of algebra and the virtue of learning it. Most of them sound reasonable on first hearing; many of them I once accepted. But the more I examine them, the clearer it seems that they are largely or wholly wrong— unsupported by research or evidence, or based on wishful logic. (I’m not talking about quantitative skills, critical for informed citizenship and personal finance, but a very different ballgame.)
This debate matters. Making mathematics mandatory prevents us from discovering and developing young talent. In the interest of maintaining rigor, we’re actually depleting our pool of brainpower. I say this as a writer and social scientist whose work relies heavily on the use of numbers. My aim is not to spare students from a difficult subject, but to call attention to the real problems we are causing by misdirecting precious resources.
The toll mathematics takes begins early. To our nation’s shame, one in four ninth graders fail to finish high school. In South Carolina, 34 percent fell away in 2008/2009, according to national data released last year; for Nevada, it was 45 percent. Most of the educators I’ve talked with cite algebra as the major academic reason.
Shirley Bagwell, a longtime Tennessee teacher warns that, “To expect all students to master algebra will cause more students to drop out.” For those who stay in school, there are often “exit exams,” almost all of which contain an algebra component. In Oklahoma, 33 percent failed to pass last year, as did 35 percent in West Virginia.
Algebra is an onerous stumbling block for all kinds of students: disadvantaged and affluent, black and white. In New Mexico, 43 percent of white students fell below “proficient,” along with 39 percent in Tennessee. Even well endowed schools have otherwise talented students who are impeded by algebra, to say nothing of calculus and trigonometry.
California’s two university systems,
for instance, consider applications only from students who have taken three years of mathematics and in that way
exclude many applicants who might excel in fields like art or history.
Community college students face an equally prohibitive mathematics wall. A study of two-year schools found that fewer than a quarter of their entrants passed the algebra classes they were
required to take.
“There are students taking these courses three, four, five times,” says Barbara Bonham of Appalachian State University. While some ultimately pass, she adds, “many drop out.”
Jayne Matthews is an education writer and academic advocate. Education
Matters because “only the educated
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