Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Is algebra necessary?

So asks political science professor Andrew Hacker in an Op-Ed Piece in this past weekend's New York Times.

To answer him, yes, it is:
1. For STEM jobs
2. For not burning bridges for kids who might pursue STEM careers

It doesn't necessarily follow, though, that algebra is ncecessary for everyone. In particular, it's not clear that algebra should be used as an absolute requirement for college. Only admitting students who take algebra (and get decent grades in it) might screen out some who can't hack algebra but who might thrive in college-level humanities and go on to write brilliant books or screenplays. Or provocative New York Times Op-Ed pieces.

But the fact that someone can't hack algebra doesn't mean that they are constitutionally incapable of hacking it. Much more likely is that their entire pre-algebra math background consisted of Reform Math taught by teachers who scored in the bottom third of their math SATs: true of a growing proportion of young Americans.

Hacker's piece has gone viral and inspired an enormous critical response. This is presumably precisely what the Times was looking for. So I'm hoping it's part of a series:

1. A political science professor asks whether algebra is necessary.
2. A math professor asks whether civics is necessary.
3. A computer science professor asks whether health class is necessary.
4. A philosophy professor asks whether spelling tests are necessary.
5. A critical theory professor asks whether chemistry is necessary.
6. A religious studies professor asks whether gym is necessary.


1crosbycat said...

My husband did horribly in Algebra in high school, but he had to take it in college (communications major) and got an A. This was pre-reform math, maybe - he's coming up on his 25 yr high school reunion this year. I think Algebra was one of the requirements for Pennsylvania's new HS graduation requirements, but those were softened recently (yay).

Right now, there are a lot of courses required in college that do not directly relate to the desired degree - cutting out all these courses that are supposed to produce well rounded individuals might cut 2 years off a degree and save students lots of money. But then again, if a kid can't pass basic algebra I wonder if they have the ability to obtain a college degree.

Anonymous said...

You may be able to earn a degree in art or history without algebra, but there are not many people working in art or history. Most with these types of liberal arts degrees end up in office work or in managerial jobs, and many of these jobs require some proficiency in math. We want kids to learn algebra for the same reason we want them to become good writers. These are basic skills that translate into many different types of work.

Auntie Ann said...

To really learn English, you have to take a foreign language.

To really learn math, isn't algebra key?

Katharine Beals said...

To really learn math, algebra *is* key.

I don't have any empirical data, but I suspect that it's possible to be a brilliant essayist or novelist without having taken a foreign language. (Explicit knowledge of English grammatical structure does require foreign language exposre, but one can be a great writer without such knowledge).

To clarify my position, I believe that everyone who has mastered prealgebra should be required to take algebra.

Whether colleges should only admit those who have taken/mastered algebra is a separate question. I suspect that there are people out there who haven't mastered algebra, and yet could thrive within college-leve humanities (and make valuable contributions to the humanities experience of their fellow students).

Their post-college job prospects are yet another issue, and I agree that quantitative skills are necesary for many jobs. But lots of jobs require strong writing skills, and many (perhaps even the majority) of such jobs don't require algebra skills.

Leigh Lieberman said...

A sensible and simple solution would be to distinguish between STEM and non-STEM prep HS diplomas. A Basic non-STEM diploma should require Algebra I. For students who plan on devoting their lives to the humanities, it may be unrealistic to demand more. But they should not be under the illusion that that have gone far enough to judge intelligently such matters as whether algebra is necessary. The so-called educators who are running math education into the ground in PA clearly have had a grossly inadequate math education.
I rarely encounter mathematically savvy administrators or school board members; this results in tragically high district remediation rates for far too many PA graduates along with correspondingly lousy SAT scores - readily available on PA's Department of Education website - that I have been examining for years.

A STEM level 1 diploma should require significantly more than Algebra I and should be a strict requirement for all prospective academic teachers and administrators.
Level 2 should probably represent successful completion of the typical 4 years leading up to college calculus and should be an absolute requirement for all prospective middle school and HS administrators as well as science teachers and guidance counselors.
Level 3 would then be successful completion of AP Calculus BC and both semesters of AP Physics C.

I concur with GH from California's NYTimes comment [July 29, 2012 at 2:19 p.m.] :

Back in the late 1950s, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the first satellite to orbit the earth. This induced a panic in the US, where it was perceived that US technological superiority---and therefore life, liberty, and the American Way---were all in mortal danger. One outcome was the passage of the National Defense Education Act, which provided substantial federal funding for schools, with emphasis on math.

We can cut the math from the curriculum because it's it's hard, because it's ego-deflating, etc. But somehow, I don't think that up-and-coming countries like China and India are going to subscribe to this approach; and so it's only a matter of time until it's deja vu, all over again.

Unless, of course, our national ideal is to reduce ourselves to third-world status, as so often seems the case these days. If that's what you're after, the let's-not-do-algebra thought is doin' it right.
---- end of GH's comment -----

We cannot afford to settle for mediocrity; the current situation is jeopardizing our future.