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At NPR: For social justice’s sake, get rid of algebra!

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From Kayla Lattimore and Julie Depenbrock at NPR:

Algebra is one of the biggest hurdles to getting a high school or college degree — particularly for students of color and first-generation undergrads.

It is also the single most failed course in community colleges across the country. So if you’re not a STEM major (science, technology, engineering, math), why even study algebra?

That’s the argument Eloy Ortiz Oakley, chancellor of the California community college system, made today in an interview with NPR’s Robert Siegel.

Oakley is among a growing number of educators who view intermediate algebra as an obstacle to students obtaining their credentials — particularly in fields that require no higher level math skills. More.

Hmmm. If we dropped analysis of grammar from a serious English curriculum, more people would pass too. The trouble is, they would not usually know how to find out if they are using standard English where it is expected and needed, or how to fix it if they aren’t doing so. So college would be easier but the time spent there would be less productive.

At the site, there is also: Who Needs Algebra? New Approach To College Math Helps More Pass:

“I feel like, if math isn’t important in your career, then there is no need for it in college,” she says. “What’s the purpose of wasting your time and your money?”

I (O’Leary for News) spent more time on my algebra homework in high school than on all my lang and lit courses put together. But algebra taught me to see the theoretical structure behind the numbers we tend to accept as given.

Thinking that way saved me from any number of financial predators over the subsequent fifty years. I was much less likely to get lost in a blizzard of numbers as long as I kept my eye on the governing principles, the theoretical structure that is true for all x’s and y’s.

Drop your maths if you want, girls. But if you get stuck with a bad car loan, tenancy agreement, marriage contract, or mortgage, the worst part is that you may not even find it easy to understand why it is so bad. Not being able to grasp the underlying theory—maybe not even realizing that there is an underlying theory—sets you up for making the same mistake again.

Aw, forget these people. Just do your math homework! It’ll pay off in ways you can’t now foresee.

See also: Nature: Stuck with a battle it dare not fight, even for the soul of science. Excuse me guys but, as in so many looming strategic disasters, the guns are facing the wrong way.

15 Replies to “At NPR: For social justice’s sake, get rid of algebra!

  1. 1

    I can remember when the battle was whether high schools should teach pre-calculus to their college-bound seniors. Algebra was an 8th grade course, a pre-requisite for entering high school. Now it is the most failed course—at community colleges?
    Alas, I spent 4 years teaching at a University, and many students would transfer in from the nearby community college. “The core courses are much cheaper at community college” they would say, “so I get them out of the way before going to the University.” Then us professors would be saddled with teaching remedial math to these transfer students, whose preparation at a community college was seriously sub-par.
    And now even that is too much trouble. Look, you can only lower the standards so far, just like Hershey’s can only make a chocolate bar so thin, and people stop buying it. There is a bar so low that no one can find it, and then you’ve made the gatekeeper unable to collect the toll.

  2. 2
    News says:

    Robert Sheldon at 1, generally in my high school days, most girls did not like math but most of us just passed it. The alternative was summer school, while friends were canoeing or earning money. Imagine, summer school redoing a course one didn’t like anyway…

    The teaching may also have been more systematic back then.

    In any event, no one offered to let us off learning maths. People didn’t think that way.

  3. 3
    ET says:

    If algebra is such a huge hurdle then perhaps more people should just learn a trade like plumbing, electrician, boiler tech, carpenter, house cleaner, etc.

    If you cannot do/ understand algebra you shouldn’t be in college.

  4. 4
    News says:

    But, ET at 4, why CAN’T they do algebra?

    I don’t think girls today are any dumber than girls back then. We did it because we knew we had to, the way a soldier gets through basic training.

    It is a good thing to discover that one can actually do something that seemed like such a barrier at first. Life will offer many similar challenges.

  5. 5
    ET says:

    The girls I went to school with, 60s-70s, understood Algebra just fine. Today it seems like people are just in some sort of rush and cannot be bothered with taking the time to learn something as basic as Algebra. And it seems they have thrown out doing math tables as an exercise. We used to have to write them out for numbers 1-10 (addition, subtraction, multiplication and division). My kids didn’t and when I asked the teachers said they stopped doing that years ago because they said it didn’t work. They never showed the studies though.

    “I feel like, if math isn’t important in your career, then there is no need for it in college,” she says. “What’s the purpose of wasting your time and your money?”

    The irony here is if you don’t understand Algebra/ math then most likely you will be wasting your time and money all throughout your life.

  6. 6
    johnnyb says:

    I think this is, interestingly, an outgrowth of consensus science. The “leave it to the experts” mentality on display. Yes, we want intelligent experts who know better than we do, but that’s by raising up people to do better, not by dumbing the rest of us down.

    As Denyse and others have pointed out, math helps you prevent being taken for a ride by people claiming to be experts but really just out for themselves. Sometimes, whole industries have been developed around such “experts” (it regularly happens in finance).

    By teaching math, we mitigate against this by establishing our own strength and ability to judge for ourselves. This also allows us to better judge for ourselves other disciplines, too.

  7. 7
  8. 8
    Dionisio says:

    Robert Sheldon @1:

    I can remember when the battle was whether high schools should teach pre-calculus to their college-bound seniors.

    Calculus was taught in high school starting with differential calculus in 11th grade and integral calculus in 12th.

  9. 9
    Belfast says:

    I have some sympathy for dropping algebra.
    I had no trouble with it or trig or geometry at school but I can say that algebra has been as useful to me as astronomy would have been.
    I would finish each day with the thought, gee another day without solving a quadratic equation.
    Maths is basically a box of tools, called equations, for solving specific problems. And these are supplied with the job in calculating odds of all kinds.
    And when it came to comparing offers, a bit of mental arithmetic and a scrap of paper did it

  10. 10
    LocalMinimum says:

    Belfast @ 9:

    While quadratic equations and such are far more useful if you’re going further, basic equations/functions/variable usage are all necessary to be a fully functional adult.

    While many/most people know/figure out how to do such things implicitly, being able to explicitly write it out lets you (and others!) check your work, just like with arithmetic. Having a universally standard means of seeing how you’re wrong/explaining why you’re right can be incredibly useful.

    So, while I would be disappointed with dropping factoring quadratics/synthetic division/intro to matrices, because they’re brain developing, I could understand it.

    However, the more basic parts still need to be taught to everyone. They’re silly easy, anyway.

    Also, math includes a set of tools called equations for solving specific problems, but math is far more than just that. A lot of math education is about how to use tools (not just equations), and higher math teaches you how they’re made and, ideally, how to make them.

    I know from experience with physics/graphics coding that knowing the math helps a lot even in using functions and libraries written by other people that would otherwise be black boxes; especially when things don’t do exactly what you think they should/want them to be doing.

  11. 11
    johnnyb says:

    What makes quadratic equations important is not the equations themselves, but rather it is deeper practice on the basic toolset. Quadratic equations are complicated enough that you have to actually use your brain to think about them, but simple enough that they can be solved using formulas.

    I think that people use the concepts from quadratic equations a lot more than they think, if for nothing else than not assuming variables always contribute linearly to the function they are looking at.

    Polar coordinates, for instance, which I myself hate, force people to see how looking at the same problem from a different perspective can yield simpler answers.

    Unfortunately, math teachers (and books!) rarely identify the relevance of the math to general thinking. Math is a very concrete way to give you practice in a variety of ways of thinking, for which we can directly check if your answers are right or wrong.

  12. 12
    Timaeus says:

    Dionisio wrote:

    “Calculus was taught in high school starting with differential calculus in 11th grade and integral calculus in 12th.”

    You have to specify where and when you are talking about. Curriculum varies widely, differing from country to country, state to state, and even from school to school. There are high schools in the USA, e.g. in the wealthier sections of the Northeast, dedicated to math/science/tech, where they hardly learn anything but math and science (Phys. Ed.? Music? European History? Latin? Forget it!) In such schools, they doubtless try to push calculus down earlier into the curriculum, and they can do it, because such schools tend to attract math/science geeks with good “genes” for technical stuff (parents who are doctors, lawyers, engineers, etc.). But I doubt you will see many schools in, say, rural Georgia, where they start calculus in 11th grade. I suspect that in most such places the basic algebraic skills are nowhere near in place by the end of 10th grade, in order for the students to be able to start calculus in the 11th. If a student is still having difficulty with y = mx + b, he/she is not yet ready for calculus.

    Finally, there is no need to teach much calculus in the high schools, because the students will do it all over again in first-year calculus anyway. My first-year university calculus course was a repetition of my senior high school calculus course. Most colleges and universities find that the math standards are so wildly different across the nation that they have to teach Freshman Calculus on the assumption that the students know little or nothing. If they taught first-year calculus to the level of the brainy suburban kids from specialized math/science schools in Connecticut, they would leave the kids from places like Dover, Pennsylvania eating dust. So for high schools to be knocking their brains out trying to get calculus into 11th grade is silly. Better to make sure the students have good solid general mathematical skills, and some pre-calculus stuff (limits and so on), and a good, solid, broad education in basic subjects, e.g., a language other than English, some history and geography beyond American history and geography, and most of all, a thorough grounding in English grammar, punctuation and vocabulary so they can communicate effectively. The typical high school grad’s English is atrocious. Someone above commented that American grads rank 26th in the world in math. I’d be afraid to find out how they rank in English.

  13. 13
    johnnyb says:

    I don’t see anything wrong with teaching Calculus twice – once in high school and once in college. That actually seems like the best subject to have overlap in, and would probably help students succeed. Having a basic overview of the subject before diving into the depths I think would be helpful.

  14. 14
    daveS says:

    johnnyb,

    I think that’s certainly arguable. On the other hand, my first calculus teacher in college felt that the (sometimes) not very rigorous version of calculus students frequently see in high school actually hinders them from understanding it at a deeper level later on. For that reason, he believed it’s actually better to wait until college.

  15. 15
    Timaeus says:

    johnnyb:

    I’m less concerned about the fact that calculus is taught in the senior year of high school and then again in the first year of college (the repetition has some advantages, especially in bringing everyone up to the same standard, since some high schools are notably poorer in teaching than others), than about the fact that (according to Dionisio) some high schools are teaching calculus as early as eleventh grade. There is simply no need to teach it that early. If he’s talking about some optional advanced math class for geniuses in some isolated school, or some special math/science school in the wealthy suburbs of Stanford where everyone’s Mom and Dad are professors or NASA physicists, that might not be so bad, but if there is some school board in the USA where calculus is *normally* taught in eleventh grade in all the board’s high schools (which would mean to more weak students than gifted students), I think that school board is misguided. One year of high school calculus is enough, especially when the college professor is going to start them on calculus from scratch anyway.

    Instead of urging little Johnny to take more Calculus in high school, we should be urging little Johnny to take more English composition, because he doesn’t know how to avoid comma splices, and to take some non-American history and geography, to be better fit to understand the global world he lives in.

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