Tuesday, October 23, 2012

How Important is Algebra?

A professor of political science named Andrew Hacker of Queens College, New York, published a provocative op-ed piece in the New York Times titled, “Is Algebra Necessary?”

It elicited strong rebuttals, most of them, as expected, from math professors around the country. Hacker’s thesis is that there is no evidence that mastering polynomial functions or parametric equations will be of any benefit to students fearful of algebra or to those aspiring to excel in subjects that have no connection with algebra or mathematics in general. He cites statistics in which most educators blame algebra as the reason for the high drop-out rate from our schools and colleges.

The professor gives California’s two university systems as proof of the harm that algebra does to students. The universities consider “applications only from students who have taken three years of mathematics and in that way exclude many applicants who might excel in fields like art or history. Community college students face an equally prohibitive mathematics wall. A study of two-year schools found that fewer than a quarter of their entrants passed the algebra classes they were required to take.”

The article generated strong reaction among students of California’s community colleges. Is algebra an impediment to their goals, or is it a difficult subject they must master anyway to acquire analytical skills and learn the value of hard work, traits required in any profession?

David, who is taking intermediate algebra this Fall, disagrees with Hacker’s contention that the emphasis should be on applied math and algebra for specific, everyday problems. As he sees it, learning only the math we need for specific situations ignores the underlying thought process that governs how the formulas work. “If we tailor math only for certain situations, we will raise a generation of people that can quote memorized steps without any understanding of WHY they work.” As to Hacker’s contention that algebra should be cut because it is ‘too hard’ implies that chemistry, physics, Art, English should also be cut because some students find these subjects hard as well. “Many people go into college without a solid base from high school and need a refresher to prepare them for the very rigorous course of study required to graduate from college. The rigor of higher education needs to be maintained for all these degrees to mean anything, and thus the requirements must be high, and to meet those requirements students need a good general education, and to have a good general education students absolutely must have a good understanding of algebra and the logical thinking required to work out the problems even without close instruction.”

“There is also the sad fact that without being prodded, most people don't care to challenge themselves to a higher understanding of algebra and mathematics. People must be forced to do it before they realize that they like it. The people who discover a love for algebra become the future of the field. If we do not require it, we will lose these people and soon afterwards, we will decline in our ability to understand it.”

Henry struggles with algebra but still feels that it should continue to be a core subject. “Whether you are a doctor measuring medication to inject into a patient or construction worker mixing cement, it all involves math.  Algebra isn’t easy but neither is life. So struggle is good for us to prepare for life.”

Kendal knows how hard algebra is. She had to take the course three times before she was able to get a passing grade. “If you don’t understand chapter 4, you will not understand chapter 5. Algebra builds on itself. I always thought I was bad in math until I realized that I was bad because I wasn’t paying attention and not putting in the hard work. Prof. Hacker says that students who are unable to pass algebra drop out or are denied admission to colleges of their choice and are unable to get decent jobs with good pay. To that I say, who would want to hire someone who quit when the going got tough? While the formulas used in algebra are not used in everyday life, the lesson of working hard to achieve a goal will be with the student for life. I wouldn’t walk into the Google campus and expect to be hired as a lawyer and then be pissed that they didn’t hire me because I haven’t passed the bar. Algebra weeds out those who aren’t dedicated or motivated to succeed.”

Frank agrees with Hacker and believes that any math beyond pre-algebra should not be a requirement. “Once we have learned how to do simple math for everyday life, it should be enough. It just causes stress when so many other things are going on in a student’s life. I know a lot of successful people who don’t even know pre-algebra. If you want to be a rocket scientist or a chemist, go for high-level math. But math beyond pre-algebra is a waste of time for most students.”

Intesar feels that removing algebra will be detrimental to the learning process. ”If algebra is removed, what next? English? Geometry? The U.S. ranks 14th among developed countries in Math! This is not good for a country that wields enormous power and influence in the world. We are now importing scientists from other countries instead of creating our own scientists. When I am reaching for a goal, I must struggle. Otherwise, accomplishments are worthless. We must not avoid algebra because it is hard.”

Lisa can relate to the difficulty of algebra and feels that the course should not be a requirement but an option. Algebra causes many students to drop out of school. She has taken algebra multiple times. Just when she thinks she understands a concept, there comes another that messes up her understanding of the first. She knows many students who face the same problem.

Aubrea feels strongly that algebra is important for everyone to learn. “Algebra not only has to do with everyday math, it also helps students think logically, to think outside of the box. And it is always good to know algebra especially when our kids need help doing their algebra homework in the future.”

Christina often stresses the importance of algebra to her children but wonders how necessary algebra really is. “During my twenty five year career in the dental field and a couple of years in sales, I have applied my mathematical skills that I (barely) learned in high school, but I have never had an issue come up that a calculator or Google could not solve. I know others who dropped out of high school due to their inability to grasp algebra but they have gone on to make good careers without algebraic knowledge.”

Jonathan relates a personal story. “Back when I sold women’s shoes at Nordstrom, we had a power outage that brought down our fancy registers. But even with the power out, the show must go on. So with no light and no registers, we continued to write receipts, only we did it freehand. There was a problem, however. No one in my department knew how to calculate the sales tax. Luckily for them (and me), that was one of the few things from Algebra I remembered how to do. So for the next hour, while the power was still off, I was the go-to receipt scribbler!  When I was younger, before my Nordstrom days, I used to loathe Algebra. I thought that school should play to their student’s strengths and future interests, which for me certainly wasn’t anything math-related. Many years later, however, I’ve taken a more moderate stance. I believe a class called Practical Algebra would be really beneficial in not only opening people’s eyes to the benefits of Algebra but teaching them vital mathematical skills, as well.”

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