Is Algebra Necessary?

In an OpEd piece in the NY Times on July 28th, 2012 titled Is Algebra Necessary?, Andrew Hacker, emeritus professor of political science at Queens College, City University of New York, and a co-author of “Higher Education? How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids — and What We Can Do About It,” details the problems with forcing all students to take algebra, geometry, and other mathematics when they are not ready, or uninterested in doing so.

I could not agree more with Mr. Hacker’s opinion.  My comments to his post follow.  I will elaborate on my perspective at a later date.

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Radical change is needed re: compulsory algebra (as well as geometry and beyond) at all public schools.  While ANY student should be allowed to take algebra, geometry, or beyond, they should not be forced to take it when they are not ready or adequately prepared (as determined by multiple measures) which will incur greater costs to implement until more cost-effective technology is developed and deployed.

After several decades of attempts, involving hundreds of millions of students of all backgrounds, it seems clear there is no “holy grail” method for ALL students to succeed (much less attain ‘proficiency’) in these courses UNLESS significant changes occur such as small group or even 1:1 intensive instruction which is likely fiscally untenable, and it is not clear that effort will be effective.

I do not believe the answer lies in the new Common Core State Standards, standardized testing, NCLB / RTTT or other federal mandates, charter schools, curriculum, pedagogy, or instructor / teacher but in the student and their personal investment in their education, which they, or their family, may realize is inadequate for the task at specific points in time. However, these same students may recognize when they are ready, and able to succeed once they either feel prepared and/or able to dedicate themselves to success, albeit supported by their family and excellent instruction by teachers committed to helping ALL students learn.

NB: Most teachers have been, and are still, committed to helping ALL students learn. However, that process input is insufficient to achieve success in these subjects, and likely any subject.

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About Dave aka Mr. Math Teacher

Secondary math teacher teaching math intervention, algebra 1, honors precalculus, and AP Calculus AB. I spent 25 years in high tech in engineering, marketing, sales and business development roles in the satellite communications, GPS, semiconductor, and wireless industries. I am awed by the potential in our nation's youth and I hope to instill in them the passion to improve our world at local, state, national, and global levels.
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13 Responses to Is Algebra Necessary?

  1. Dave ( also a career changer Math teacher ),a few years ahead of you. says:

    Still digesting the article as he addresses several issues. I may reply after a good nights sleep. Education is an offshoot of Lincoln’s adage. ALL CHILDREN CAN LEARN, they just don’t learn the same things the same way at the same rate. I just got a group of eleven day wonders; integrated algebra regents prep at two hours a day for the August exam. Integrated ( sic ) in the same class as kids who have been there since July 9. Might be interesting to see which group does better as they will be doing the same work here on out; at least they are supposed to be working. It’s really about math literacy, not so much algebra, for most of “the unwashed”.

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  2. Patti Harris says:

    1. We are losing kids well before Algebra. I see ninth-graders in my engineering class who don’t know how to measure the sides of a box to find the volume. If they had the requisite skills, perhaps Algebra would not be such a hurdle.
    2. The research clearly shows a direct correlation between the years and difficulty of math classes taken in High School and success rates in college. While the author argues the low graduation rate is the result of the inability to pass freshman math, I would hazard a guess based on the studies I have read that a student who is incapable of algebraic thinking is not ready for higher education.
    3. I take serious issue with the author’s comment denouncing vocational tracks as an alternative to college prep. As a Career and Technical Education teacher, I am certain my Engineering Technology classroom is exactly the place for kids to learn the math skills they struggle to attain in a traditional math-only-no-real-world-application classroom.
    4. I realize the issues with math education at the high school level. But I disagree we should do away with the requirement because it’s just too hard. I fully agree with the comment that we should get rid of calculators until Trig/Calculus. We put calculators in kids hands in sixth grade and they still don’t know how to do long division! Build the arithmetic skills so by ninth grade kids are not distracted from learning the more difficult math because they can’t do the basics.

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    • Good comments, all, Patti. I agree that a CTE / votech pathway is appropriate for many students, and our society. Also, in my opinion, its not that algebra is ‘too hard’ per se, its that many students are not prepared, or ready, for it and should not then be forced to take it, which mostly results in little to no learning, wasted time, further discouragement / self-doubt about mathematical abilities, and potentially hastens further academic difficulties.

      I wish there was a way to capture the minds and spirits of all students so they may attain their highest potential possible. Wishing it were so, even backed by extensive efforts by teachers, will not overcome the vast and varying reasons individual students struggle in school. Attempting what has been tried for decades, with an endless array of ‘research-backed’ methods, has not yielded significant progress. Continuing to do so makes no sense to me. Its time to invest in a new model of schooling harnessing the specific strengths of dedicated, passionate, experienced teachers and the potential of intelligent, adaptive, student-specific online supplemental learning software. One without the other is insufficient.

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      • BTW, I left out the point I made in my original post. It is critical that a student, along with his/her family, invest significant effort in learning. Students cannot passively receive information and expect to succeed in school, or life. Those in education who ignore the crucial role a student, and family, plays in student achievement inadvertently cause more harm than good, in my opinion. Unless, and until, students recognize the importance of learning, and the need for active engagement, outcomes for many will continue to fall far below their potential. Efforts should focus on helping students and families recognize this reality.

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      • Patti Harris says:

        “Attempting what has been tried for decades, with an endless array of ‘research-backed’ methods, has not yielded significant progress. Continuing to do so makes no sense to me.”
        Absolutely agree. It is the “What do we do differently?” part that is so difficult. Obviously, forcing kids to take more math and at higher levels when they are not ready/prepared to do so is a waste of everyone’s time, no matter what the research says. But math is a microcosm of the larger issue–do we need to prepare EVERY student for college? Yes, every student should have the opportunity for such an education, but by forcing it on them what are we accomplishing?

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      • I could be just too simple-minded, but I believe it is simpler than it seems. As long as parents and students are made to understand their responsibilities in the learning process, along with teachers, administrators, etc., and honest discussions occur between these entities on a marking period basis where corrective action is applied, said corrective action consisting of a range of options including, but not limited to, a student receiving outside support from their family as needed to pass the class, a student applying themselves more if that was the issue, a student withdrawing from the current course for remedial instruction in prerequisites needed to succeed then re-entering the course at the next marking period (this all assumes structural and technological changes to what we call school), a student switching to another teacher’s course if a seat is available, or a host of other creative solutions. In my simple mind, if we have dedicated students backed by dedicated family working with dedicated teachers supported by dedicated administrators, problems with student achievement would diminish significantly. Now, getting everyone to be dedicated ‘almost’ all of the time is the challenge. But without it, I firmly believe no amount of research-based efforts will yield anywhere close to the change needed. Period.

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  3. Jeanette says:

    “Students cannot passively receive information and expect to succeed in school, or life.”

    We must be careful not to give excuses to those teachers that are not willing to change or adjust to the needs of the students. While I don’t think that is anyone here, I get nervous. I have worked with those that will say, “why work so hard, they are not going to try anyway.” It makes me sad. The teacher and the student lose. We all lose.

    All in all, I must say that I agree. Kids need to be given the opportunity to thrive. Given support and love. But in the end it is their gift to receive. No one can force it. We, as a country put so much work into those that refuse that I worry we are not educating the ones that want to learn and strive to the degree that they deserve.

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    • Totally agree that no teacher should give up trying. At the same time, the student cannot either. It requires both parties, at a minimum, and ideally the family as the student may not have the maturity needed to self-motivate and self-manage. My largest concern with most ed research and policy is how it seems to neglect the significant role the student and his/her family plays in academic achievement. It makes no sense to me, frankly speaking. Perhaps it is because I have not spent my life immersed in education and look at it anew. Ironically, I believe that is a value-add I bring, yet some pooh pooh my point of view since I am so new to the classroom.

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  4. Reblogged this on Reflections of a Second-career Math Teacher and commented:

    I still believe Andrew Hacker’s perspective is more correct than those who sought to rebut his position such as Daniel Willingham, Jose Vilson, and many others. This is not to say that they did not make many valid points. However, they are not mutually exclusive, except the character assassinations.

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  5. GeoffSmith says:

    I’d agree. I teach in a private school setting and while students whose attention I catch or whose parents heed advice to essentially make studying a non-choice in the household improve greatly. The rest who just sit there no matter what or who really need a year or two practicing almost nothing but ratios or various measurement techniques simply cannot move forward. This hold even in classes of 12-23 students.
    His point about teaching certain “useful” mathematical features of reality should be heeded. I don’t know why people read pieces like this and find them incredible. Though I think that it is possible for almost any self-motivated student to excel at algebra, in general, the material wastes people’s time.

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