Where Education Is Taking A Wrong Turn

There is a truism in management philosophy that “What you measure is what you get”. It sounds like we are seeing a subset of this in education.

There apparently is a movement afoot to drop algebra from high school education…because…well…it’s just too darn hard…and students drop out and don’t graduate because they fail algebra. So the goal is to graduate everyone…a goal I don’t find objectionable…but since algebra is so darn hard…let’s drop it from the curriculum to improve graduation rates. One more opportunity to dumb down education to reach the wrong goal…a superior education resulting in a valid diploma that will actually be worth it’s weight in gold should be the goal…not just the piece of parchment itself.

But here is some of the rationale:

Who needs algebra?

That question muttered by many a frustrated student over the years has become a vigorous debate among American educators, sparked by a provocative new book that argues required algebra has become an unnecessary stumbling block that forces millions to drop out of high school or college.

“One out of 5 young Americans does not graduate from high school. This is one of the worst records in the developed world. Why? The chief academic reason is they failed ninth-grade algebra,” said political scientist Andrew Hacker, author of “The Math Myth and Other STEM Delusions.”

Hacker, a professor emeritus at Queens College, argues that, at most, only 5% of jobs make use of algebra and other advanced math courses. He favors a curriculum that focuses more on statistics and basic numbers sense and less on (y – 3)2 (equals) 4y – 12.

Obviously I disagree or I wouldn’t be writing this post…but yes I bet that a lot of jobs don’t use algebra everyday. But most jobs and life in general could certainly use the thinking skills acquired from working with algebra…being able to see and define relationships…following logic from top to bottom. Very useful skills.

But then there’s this add:

“Will algebra help you understand the federal budget?” he asked.

If I were Groucho Marx or Danny Thomas, that one would deserve a spit take! No algebra won’t help you understand the federal budget but basic math and quantum physics won’t either.

“Every study I’ve ever seen of workers in whole bunches of fields shows that you have to understand formulas, you have to understand relationships,” said Philip Uri Treisman, a professor of mathematics and of public affairs at the University of Texas. “Algebra is the tool for consolidating your knowledge of arithmetic.”

Bill McCallum, a professor at the University of Arizona who played a lead role in developing the Common Core standards for math, said he would oppose any division of K-12 students into an algebra track and a non-algebra track.

“You might say only a certain percentage of kids will go on to use algebra, but we don’t know which kids those are,” he said.

This last quote goes back to my philosophy on education just a bit. Yes, critics are correct, not every kid will go on to college…but when they graduate from high school they should have the knowledge and skill sets to pursue college if they want…or an apprenticeship…or a career…regardless. We can never know who will end up using actual algebra.

In New York City, home to the nation’s largest public school system with 1.1 million pupils, just 52% of the students who took last year’s statewide Regents test in Algebra I passed, mirroring statistics elsewhere in the country.

Rather than scaling back on algebra, New York City educators have announced an “Algebra for All” initiative that aims to keep students on track by providing specialized math teachers in fifth grade, before algebra is introduced.

“We believe in high standards,” said Carol Mosesson-Teig, director of mathematics for the city Department of Education.

Now of course I am a little biased. I am a computer programmer…and on a practical side…I use the logic and thought processes I learned in math classes every day on the job…I even use algebra to develop some of the code that I have written over the years. It’s a rewarding and lucrative field.

But the United States is having its lunch eaten by China and India in this field. They have the math skills…they can do algebra…and they are going to be writing much of our code in the very near future. Our students just can’t hack it (pun intended). So dumbing down STEM education another notch is just plain stupid…or we aren’t going to hold onto the real jobs coming in the remainder of the 21st Century.


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8 thoughts on “Where Education Is Taking A Wrong Turn

  1. As I understand it, the goal is not to dumb down math, but rather to replace algebra (as a “gatekeeper” class) with applied math and statistics, which are much more useful in everyday life. Students with interest and aptitude then go on to algebra and calculus.

    As someone who works in an urban high school, I see every year kids taking algebra for the third or fourth time because that’s the graduation requirement. They may understand lots of different math concepts and can apply math in everyday situations, but they can’t pass algebra.

    Is that a reason to drop them out, force them into a fifth year, or otherwise punish them?

    A decade or so ago there was a move to re-order how science was taught, starting with physics (not the hard math physics, but atoms and stuff that explains the basics of HOW SCIENCE WORKS) which would provide a basis for understanding more complex science concepts later. But no, we’re stuck in a biology-chemistry-physics structure that brutally punishes young science students who are forced to memorize useless things like photosynthesis formulas and ACTP for DNA without a firm grounding in the theoretical basics of science.

    So … the USA leads the world shitty math and science instruction. Yay us!

    1. I should add that part of both what’s exciting about Common Core and what drives some critics up the wall is that younger students’ math education is very different today than it used to be. The goal is to make students more algebra-ready by high school not by doubling down on algebra (as NYC seems to be doing), but by teaching math concepts more philosophically rather than by rote memorization.

    2. I am a retired chem/physics teacher. However, I developed courses with minimal math. This resulted in HUGE increases in enrollment. I have preached for years that minimal math physics should be the beginning science course in high school. Kudos to you for your thoughts.

  2. Like many subjects mandated by the liberal education system algebra is pointless to the majority of young minds.

    There will be no overhaul to modernize what is taught in schools. The status quo is to keep them as liberal brain washing institutions. Pumping out self-centered, confused, sensitive, wussy, losers. This type of human is much easier to control and keep voting democrat. Continuing the cycle of liberal control on the masses.

    1. What you say may be true. But is also part of Grover Norquist and the conservatives plan to dumb down America.

    2. Wet,

      “Like many subjects,” prohibited, “by the,” wing nut, “education(sic) system(sic),” evolution, “is pointless to,” wing nuts.

      “There will be no overhaul to modernize what is taught in schools. The status quo is to keep them as,” wing nut, “brain washing institutions.” (sic)Pumping out self-centered, in-sensitive,” homophobic, “losers. This type is much easier to keep voting,” wing nut. “(sic)Continuing” wing nut, “control on(sic) the masses.”


      English sentences require a verb and a subject.

      1. If you’re “confused,” how can you at the same time, be, “self-centered?”

      2. Have you heard of the direct voice?

      You wrote, “what is taught in schools.” 3. You never heard of a, “syllabus,” or a “curriculum?” 3.1 Or, you wanted to use five-words instead of one?

      4. Why do you need big, intrusive government to compel you not to marry a, “wussy?” 4.1 Why are you opposed to individual liberty and the Second Amendment?

      5. At what age, or stage in academic development, should algebra be taught?

  3. Thank you, thank you, thank you!

    Our children are our and the nation’s future. It is so refreshing to focus on a real problem and a difference between the major parties rather than what is or is not happening in Arizona or with “private servers” used by former Secretary of States eons ago.

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