Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Algebra is worthless - to a PolySci professor.

So Andrew Hacker got on the NYTimes and asked "Is Algebra Necessary?"
"This debate matters. Making mathematics mandatory prevents us from discovering and developing young talent. In the interest of maintaining rigor, we’re actually depleting our pool of brainpower."
From a cognitive sense, brain-power depletion is a myth and he's barking up the wrong tree to start with it. His points get worse as he continues.
"The toll mathematics takes begins early. To our nation’s shame, one in four ninth graders fail to finish high school. Most of the educators I’ve talked with cite algebra as the major academic reason."
Really? Every school I know of has some program in place for those who cannot pass algebra - consumer math, business math, basic algebra - they can get their three math credits and move on. Then, too, the educators who responded to this man's anecdotal survey probably had no idea of the real reasons kids dropped out - math was just the convenient scapegoat to help make his argument.

States such as California who make Algebra I a requirement for 8th grade are forgetting that not everyone will be a STEM major and that there are plenty of adults in the world who can't "do math" yet who are doing just fine and consider themselves successful. Mandatory 8th grade algebra is bad policy. I have never been a proponent of 8th grade algebra except for the 15% or so who are ready for it. Making it a requirement for all 8th grade students is educational abuse in my book.

There are certainly students who will never do well in a strictly abstract, mathematically intense field ... but that's okay. The world needs artists, too. And property management, and construction, and politicians, and entrepreneurs, and salesmen, and fast food, and so on. Where Hacker goes astray is in taking the previous paragraph and then running out of the algebra classroom, Pied-Piper-style, taking the students with him.

Why? All high school students should climb the mathematical ladder to the greatest height they can manage. 9th graders are not in much of a position to know their strengths and weaknesses and should be pushed, cajoled, tutored, helped, or cheered as necessary. It's not until the summer jobs between 10th and 11th grade that students start getting a sense of "this is necessary" or "this is useful" and decide to apply themselves a little more.

"If you can't swim the first time
you get in the water, you should never try
to learn." seems to be his message.
Why not let them experience algebra first? Many students just don't realize what they are good at. Many parents and elementary school teachers (the two biggest influences in students' lives so far) are rarely good at math and pass on that limitation to the kids.  Give me some time to reverse that before you write off this generation as math losers.
The depressing conclusion of a faculty report: “failing math at all levels affects retention more than any other academic factor.” A national sample of transcripts found mathematics had twice as many F’s and D’s compared as other subjects. (Which means that math teachers are grading for knowledge and other disciplines for development? Hardly an argument for changing the curriculum.  C.)

If students fail in the abstract path, they should be diverted to a parallel ladder of courses that are less abstract (more vo-tech, perhaps) while still teaching them math.

Hacker is also fairly sloppy about mixing in topics from pre-calculus and calculus and using somewhat obscure terminology to scare the reader ... "vectorial angles and discontinuous functions," two topics that wouldn't be a graduation requirement anywhere and I wouldn't expect very many of the NYT readers to know (I'm not sure Hacker knows either - I think he just picked up a math book).

I'll throw in my favorite, "But there’s no evidence that being able to prove (x² + y²)² = (x² - y²)² + (2xy)² leads to more credible political opinions or social analysis." Well, Andrew, no one ever claimed that it would.
It’s true that students in Finland, South Korea and Canada score better on mathematics tests. But it’s their perseverance, not their classroom algebra, that fits them for demanding jobs.
Actually, it's their perseverance that helps them score better on the tests. It's that same perseverance that dictates whether they will succeed in college and in life. Removing algebra doesn't change that.
But a definitive analysis by the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce forecasts that in the decade ahead a mere 5 percent of entry-level workers will need to be proficient in algebra or above.
Not to press the point, but entry-level jobs rarely require much of anything. They won't ask the entry-level intern to write a report, but grammar and writing skills are necessary.  An entry-level construction worker isn't interpreting designs, and the entry-level brewery go-fer isn't using his biology knowledge. It's at the next levels, where the decisions are made, that companies require the writing, programming, algebra, science, and tech skills.

I'll end with this:

Go ahead and deny the algebra classes to anyone who seems unlikely to use the skills. Tell them that they aren't going to take algebra, geometry, calculus. Remove them from all the purely theoretical classes you want.

If you aren't sued for discrimination and neglect, keep on doing it. My students will continue to return and thank me for what we did in class and have an easier time of it because your students won't even be in their rear-view mirror.
I’ll grant that with an outpouring of resources, we could reclaim many dropouts and help them get through quadratic equations. But that would misuse teaching talent and student effort. It would be far better to reduce, not expand, the mathematics we ask young people to imbibe.
Works for me.

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