Do We Need Algebra?

Posted on September 6, 2012
by FeliciaOctocog

In a recent article in the New York Times entitled “Is Algebra Needed?” by Andrew Hacker, ( Mr. Hacker states that “making mathematics mandatory prevents us from discovering and developing young talent…..and from depleting our pool of brainpower.”

Mr.  Hacker states that failure to meet math requirements are the primary reason for dropping out of high school and college.  His claim is largely based on anecdotal evidence. However, even if math was a reason for many to drop out, why are we presuming it is math itself?  Perhaps it is the pathetically dull and incomprehensible way in which we are teaching it.  Furthermore, many of our elementary grade teachers are self-admittedly math-phobic and put into motion the dynamics for fear of math at a young age. If you don’t build the foundation at a young age, it is very difficult for youth to catch up.  A study funded by the National Science Foundation found that math-phobic female elementary teachers particularly influence a generation of math-phobic girls. (January 11 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences).  There are countless articles and research on how to improve the teaching of math in elementary grades. One I found particularly interesting was “Math Education of Elementary Teachers: A Challenging Issue” by Anoop Kalsi, University of Maryland  ( Mr. Hacker does support changing the way we teach math and making it more accessible but still feels that higher level math is unnecessary except for the few aiming for highly technical careers. And higher level includes Algebra – more on that later.

Math education doesn’t get much better in the higher grades either.  It is often taught as an amalgamation of facts and memorization of formulae, leaving students scratching their heads wondering what the relevance is.

Mr. Hacker also wonders about the relevance of math: “Nor is it clear that the math we learn in the classroom has any relation to the quantitative reasoning we need on the job.”  He cites a psychologist from Michigan State who found that “mathematic reasoning in the workplace differs markedly from the algorithms taught in school.”  I agree wholeheartedly, but I would aver that this is a problem in the way we teach math, not an indictment of subject of math.  He goes on to cite a Georgetown study that states that 10 years from now only 5% of entry-level workers will need to be proficient in algebra or above.  However, are we just training our youth for entry-level jobs?  I think most of us go into a job hoping to have the skills to make it into a higher paying job sooner rather than later. Following that logic, let’s look at the study of history, literature, foreign languages and science.   How much of what they learn in these subjects are needed in entry level jobs? Should we cancel school altogether and send students to a more vocational system where learning is tied only to the career you choose. Though Mr. Hacker doesn’t suggest this, his argument against math could just as easily be leveled against other subjects as well.

I will give Mr. Hacker credit for recognizing the importance of arithmetic which is needed to understand public policy and basic everyday finance (like obtaining a mortgage).  As an example, he states that students should be able to understand a Consumer Price Index calculation which is used to measure inflation.   Learning the CPI calculation is a mechanical understanding of the index.  What they need to know is the concept of weighted averages, to question what goods are included in the calculation, that there are many different CPI calculations and how they differ and when each of them are used.  Since new measures are developed all the time, we need an educated citizenry who understands the mathematical concepts to apply to any measurement developed that are relevant to our daily lives.  I actually don’t think Mr. Hacker would disagree with this. What we disagree on is that there are important concepts in Algebra 1 and in Algebra 2 (although less so) that will help us with these concepts.

I spent most of my career in business and used Algebra 1 a lot. In fact, I would often work through a problem by putting it into an equation.  Let x = # units we need to manufacture and set Y as our breakeven profit.  What is the minimum number of units we have to sell, if…  you get the picture.

In Algebra 1 students study linear equations to understand relationships between two variables, which is the underpinning of statistics.  The number of drowning in the summer months goes up at the same rate of ice cream sales during the summer.  So does ice cream cause drowning?  Many politicians abuse statistics to make crazy points – how do we have a prayer of cutting through that without understanding the concepts? A concrete thinker, one who learns math mechanically, can draw wrong conclusions because they cannot see beyond what is in front of their face.  It has been said that one can learn statistics without algebra. Perhaps, but your conceptual understanding of stats will be more developed with a strong underpinning in Algebra 1 (linear regressions) and even Algebra II where we learn the difference between linear growth and exponential growth –another important concept for everyone to grasp.

Let’s address the need for algebra which Mr. Hacker claims is only needed for those interested in careers in science, technology engineering or math.  Even here he claims that most should only have to learn the math necessary for their intended career.  Yikes.  Most of us don’t stay in one job our whole lives and understanding the math concepts and their applications well in high school and college will help us to better understand the specific skills of our jobs and allow us to develop them as we rise on the career ladder.  Will I use everything I learned in high school or college math – of course not, but the analytical thinking and understanding math concepts should benefit me in many professions outside the world of science, engineering, technology and math.

OK, I am not a Pollyanna when it comes to math. At Salem CyberSpace I see kids struggle with math every day, particularly the English Language Learners who have to master the literacy of math as well as the numeracy. Many students coming from foreign countries come with less formal schooling.  Imagine being dumped into an Algebra 1 class without understanding negative numbers?   At most high schools, precalculus and calculus are not required.  Most students will take Algebra 1, Geometry, and Algebra II.  Some will substitute statistics or contemporary math[1]for Algebra II.  I do believe that some students would be better off taking contemporary math rather than Algebra 2; however, we have to be very careful about this.  I have interesting conversations with youth who tell me that they want to be engineers, architects or airplane mechanics but cannot make the connection to math.  Shame on our education system for allowing that to happen.  We are blocking a pathway to interesting and high-paying jobs if we don’t make these important connections for our youth.  I would argue that math should teach us important analytical and abstract thinking skills and make connections to careers.  For this to happen, we need to radical changes in our math curricula. We need to put kids in math classes based on their ability, not their age bracket.

I think we all agree that we need to take a hard look at how math is taught in our schools.  This debate is healthy and, like always, the answer lies somewhere in the middle.

[1] A contemporary math class is designed to survey some of the important ideas and practical applications in mathematics. In a typical program, you will study such topics as problem solving, finance, number concepts, art and math, and mathematical modeling.