Much of the education-reform community is buzzing about an opinion piece that appeared in yesterday’s New York Times. The piece, Is Algebra Necessary?, can be summed up in the first paragraph:
A typical American school day finds some six million high school students and two million college freshmen struggling with algebra. In both high school and college, all too many students are expected to fail. Why do we subject American students to this ordeal? I’ve found myself moving toward the strong view that we shouldn’t.
The author, an emeritus professor of political science at Queens College, CUNY, goes on to explain how the poor performance of American students in algebra is a reason to no longer require the subject in high schools and on college campuses. And that instead of algebra, we should be teaching “citizen statistics.”
There are, perhaps, a few valid points here. We should focus on equipping students with more “real-life” quantitative skills. The application of concepts is key to real mathematical understanding. The Common Core State Standards, for example, are rooted in ensuring that students have a conceptual understanding of topics and then are able to apply that understanding to new situations. That’s a good thing, because the rote memorization skills required to succeed on a multiple-choice test are no longer relevant (and likely never were).
But the most worrisome part of the author’s argument is that algebra should not be required because too many students are failing at it. That is the very definition of a culture of low-expectations.
I firmly believe that if we hold students to a higher standard, if we raise expectations, students will rise to that challenge. This also means doing a better job of connecting college and career paths with the required levels of education needed to succeed. Business leaders are not seeking applicants who have a basic knowledge of “citizen statistics.” They are looking for applicants with problem-solving skills and a strong background in math and science. Manufacturing and farming today require much more technical and analytical skills than they did 20 years ago. A recent article in the Atlantic magazine noted that, “A high-school education was enough for the children of farmers in the early 20th century. Children today will need college, with an emphasis on quantitative and analytical skills, if they are to thrive.”
Based on my own experience, there is likely much more that can be done to build real-world application into teaching and learning. But the skills students master by learning algebra – problem-solving, logical thinking, and the understanding of mathematical relationships – will not only prepare them for a job in a global and competitive economy, but will make them more well-rounded learners.
Is algebra necessary? Yes.