Math in the News; All for Algebra, and Algebra for All?

With the blessing of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, it looks like the great state of Kah-lee-foh-nya is set to require all 8th graders to take Algebra I. The Sacramento Bee has an article regarding this development.

A valiant effort, to be sure. But what good does this do, aside from making for good press? Let's examine.

Recalling, first of all, that the California public education system is typically ranked somewhere in the lower forties (and recalling also that, given there are but 50 states in the union, this makes California's ranking fairly dismal), it is natural to ask what the short term impact of this new requirement will be. If we're looking for a sustainable solution to the education crisis in this state (forgetting for a moment what's going on at a national level), this hardly seems to fit the bill. There's no mention in the article about how such a proposal will be funded - a fairly basic question if such a revamp is to occur. How will we pay for training current teachers or hiring new teachers to meet the larger demand for Algebra I instructors? How will we get this current crop of students up to snuff, so that when they reach 8th grade and are thrown into an Algebra class, they are not completely lost? Now, don't mistake this as a statement that teaching Algebra to 8th graders is a bad idea - far from it. But saying 8th graders should unequivocally take Algebra I seems a bit like saying developers should build houses on sand.

Mathematics is a tiered discipline, one that relies heavily on earlier results. With a mastery of multiplication, a delight with division, a familiarity with fractions, and whatever other mathematical alliterations one can muster, algebra itself is not such a difficult thing. However, all it takes is one substandard teacher, or lackluster book, or even an illness that takes a student out of the class for an important lesson, and suddenly that math train derails, sometimes leading to injuries that can be life-lasting.

What to do? Of course, the easy answer is to put your money where your mouth is. If we want students to understand Algebra in 8th grade (this is very different from wanting them to take Algebra in 8th grade), then invest in the infrastructure to do so. Pandering to some standards committee with something like this is not only a bit insulting, but also does yet another disservice to the students in our public education system - and really, haven't we done enough already?

On a related note, the tone of this article in particular does little to buck the stereotype that mathematics must necessarily be a sisyphian task. My favorite line is this one, in regards to the proportion of 8th graders who currently take Algebra I: "About half the state's eighth-graders now complete the tough subject."

Not the subject, mind you, but the tough subject. God bless those 8th graders willing to accept the arduous challenge of Algebra I. Never mind the fact that students of comparable age from all around the world are murdering us when it comes to math ability. Algebra must be tough, because most of us can't do it.

How about just calling it a subject? Do we really need to demonize Algebra further? Hasn't she endured enough? Calculus is bigger, and can take the punches. But Algebra? She's just a puppy dog. Our system of math education is just too broken for many to notice it.

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