# A farewell to Algebra?

A few days ago my daughter sent me a *New York Times* op-ed, “Is Algebra Necessary?” The author, a Queens College political science professor, argues that schools should lighten up their algebra requirements.

In her email my daughter quoted the friend who had posted this article on Facebook:

“My guess is that for students for whom algebra is the barrier to graduating from high school or college, a statistics class with any rigor is also going to be extremely difficult. And while math departments could “create courses in the history and philosophy of their discipline”, those would not be mathematics courses. Anyway, this article is weird.”

Her friend: “That is absolutely appalling.”

My friend: “Yes! That’s the word. . . I’m trying to be less

judgmental/certain. It’s not working.”

Here’s the article:

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/29/opinion/sunday/is-algebra-necessary.html?_r=1

I had pretty much the same reaction. As an economics teacher, I’ve heard plenty of students complain about math . . . even as I demonstrate why they need it. What really worries me is that students who take a pass on algebra are also deciding at a very young age to give up any number of promising careers.

Here’s a response to the NYT article, from the website “Dropout Nation.”

http://dropoutnation.net/2012/07/30/why-algebra-matters-and-why-those-who-think-it-doesnt-are-wrong/

What do you think?

Algebra is to education what weight lifting is to a football player.

Great comment Curly! At our schools we recognized that not only is Algebra fundamental – it is the basis of student success in all subsequent study of mathematics. When we realized that, we decided to change our attitude about Algebra education. We wrote a “math mission” that includes mastery of Algebra for each of our students (not just passing Algebra – but MASTERY). We communicated to our students and our parents that students in Jr. High who qualify to take Algebra would be enrolled, and depending upon how they progress they would be taught for one year or perhaps two years. We also learned that we should teach the entire program both years, and the 2nd repetition was the key to many of our students’ mastery. We made sure they never felt they were failures for taking Algebra for 2 years – we describe it like a painting – sometimes it takes a couple of passes in order to fill in all the detail and really “see” it. It has been amazingly successful and we have had 100% of our Algebra students pass the state tests year after year. Our goal is Calculus for every student in 12th grade – regardless of “at-risk” level. Mastering Algebra is a requirement for our students if they are going to make that goal.

I especially like your emphasis on mastery. When I talk to students who are struggling with the math in economics, I generally learn that they became lost sometime during Algebra 1 – and stayed lost, even if they were promoted into higher math classes. An algebra “recovery” program would have helped preserve these students’ future options.

Let me share a personal story. I was homeschooling when my daughters first tackled algebra. My second daughter really struggled with the subject: She simply did not grasp the critical concept of negative numbers. I tried all sorts of tricks, and finally gave up and decided that she – we – needed to repeat Algebra 1. This is easier to do in home school, of course, but the decision initially discouraged both of us.

But the second time proved to be the charm. I don’t know if the initial problems were developmental (math teachers whom I know and respect claim that students vary enormously in their readiness to grasp certain concepts) or reflected some kind of math resistance. At any rate, I don’t mind telling this story on a blog that my daughter reads since the story has a happy ending. Algebra 1 finally conquered, the same daughter went on to excel in high school math, and even earned a 5 on her AP Calculus exam senior year. She majored in biology and chemistry in college, and did well in her math courses there, too.

Had she given up on algebra when it first threatened to take her down, my daughter would not have been able to pursue a career in the sciences that she loves.

I read the NY Times article with much interest. While he makes some interesting points (notably that math classes drive people to drop out of school, although that claim feels anecdotal and overstated), I noticed that he has bought into two fallacies regarding mathematics.

First, he believes that mathematics is all about formulas and algorithms. That it is a rote, mechanical tool, not an art in its own right. While this reflects a lot of how math is taught in schools (even through calculus), it doesn’t reflect either how math is practiced in the real world, where every problem is a story problem and usually requires a creative use of math and other skills to solve, nor how mathematicians practice their field, with most developments coming as the result of brilliantly creative application of ideas that, while applied to a rigorous and formalized system, are no less beautiful than an athlete’s performance within the formalized rules of her sport.

Second, he believes that people don’t use algebra in their lives. While he’s right that most people don’t ever have to work out an equation formally as they did in school, he’s missing the fact that algebra shows up constantly in our lives, veiled behind a shroud of open-ended story problems. It’s just that now we go from “two trains leave the station…” to “where do I have to stop for gas on my road trip?” or “how much will it cost me to buy this cell phone?”

Apparently the author’s mastery of algebra was such that he has been able to use it daily throughout his long academic career without noticing. It makes a good case for encouraging that level of mastery in all students.