Asking the right questions

If you read about math and enjoy the internet, chances are you saw this op-ed in the New York Times over the weekend.  The piece, titled "Is Algebra Necessary?," argues that math requirements, algebra in particular, are prohibitively difficult for many people, and may be contributing to high school and college dropout rates.  Instead of imposing an algebra restriction, author Andrew Hacker suggests restructuring the curriculum around "citizen statistics" and "quantitative reasoning."  Despite the jargon-y names, he insists courses like this could be developed without sacrificing rigor or dumbing down the curriculum.

As might be expected, the piece has furrowed quite a few brows.  A few friends have asked me for my opinion, but I'm a little late to the game, and there are a number of people who have expressed my views in their own words quite well.  I'll briefly add my own to cents, peppered with links throughout.

First, I agree with Dan Meyer that the question "Is Algebra Necessary?" is not the right question.  In the strictest sense, I suppose it isn't; certainly one can go through one's entire professional life without using a lick of algebra (though I can't say I'd recommend it).  But the purpose of education isn't to supply people with only the information they will need in their career.  By this measure, nearly all of what students learn is not necessary As Rob Knop points out, "liberal arts education is to make people into good citizens, not into good workers."

A more important question, though no less trivial, is the question "Is Algebra Valuable?"  I don't think there's much room for debate here either.  If you don't think algebra has any value, that's probably because you don't understand algebra.  This may be through no fault of your own - maybe you had a terrible teacher, or a terrible textbook, or a home life that made it difficult to concentrate on your studies.  Whatever the cause, once people feel slighted by mathematics, many of them decide there are better things they could be doing with their time.  But the benefits to understanding algebra (or more generally, to building critical thinking and reasoning skills) exist and are quantifiable.  As Daniel Willingham notes (see his links for more info), "Economists have shown that cognitive skills--especially math and science--are robust predictors of individual income, of a country's economic growth, and of the distribution of income within a country."

A better question may be something like "How can we convince students of algebra's value?"  It's no secret that math has kind of a PR problem.  Textbooks can be dry, and the questions students are tasked to answer frequently seem contrived and completely disjointed from their everyday world.  But this is not a problem inherent to algebra, only the way it is presented.  Good teachers know this, and are able to make mathematics relevant to their students.  Once the material no longer seems arbitrary, it is easier to understand.  It can also be, dare I say it, fun.

But even for those who enjoy math, it can still sometimes be difficult.  Difficulty alone, however, is insufficient reason for changing the curriculum, especially when the US trails so many other countries in the mathematics ability of its students.  Hacker is undoubtedly well-intentioned, but I don't think his argument stands up under scrutiny.

I'll stop now, because other people have refuted the op ed better than I could.  Feel free to check out the links I've already mentioned, or recent posts by Ilana Horn, Andy Soffer, and this superb roundup by Damon Hedman.

I'll be back to my usual irreverence next time, I promise!

Psst ... did you know I have a brand new website full of interactive stories? You can check it out here!

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