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.
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.