This week's feature story in the NY Times Week In Review is one from Andrew Hacker, emeritus professor of political science at Queens College, who throws down the gauntlet that America should stop teaching kids algebra, "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."
Now, Hacker explains, "I’m not talking about quantitative skills, critical for informed citizenship and personal finance, but a very different ballgame," and lists extremely depressing statistics: "To our nation’s shame, one in four ninth graders fail to finish high school. In South Carolina, 34 percent fell away in 2008-9, according to national data released last year; for Nevada, it was 45 percent. Most of the educators I’ve talked with cite algebra as the major academic reason... The City University of New York, where I have taught since 1971, found that 57 percent of its students didn’t pass its mandated algebra course. 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." Somewhere, Tiger Mother is laughing at America, especially Barbie:
Instead, he suggests that students be taught "citizen statistics," using real-life examples to make math interesting and relevant: "It could, for example, teach students how the Consumer Price Index is computed, what is included and how each item in the index is weighted — and include discussion about which items should be included and what weights they should be given. This need not involve dumbing down. Researching the reliability of numbers can be as demanding as geometry. More and more colleges are requiring courses in 'quantitative reasoning.' In fact, we should be starting that in kindergarten."
This opinion piece is red meat to the Times' commentariat: One said, "There is a great value to perseverance in any discipline. I struggled with math until I took calculus in college and had a gifted teacher who not only taught calculus but relieved my math anxiety from the approach that he took to teaching. Same thing was try in chemistry until I took organic chemistry and had a brilliant teacher. I have had a 40 year career as a scientist. It has been very rewarding but it wasn't easy. I am afraid that this article is advocating taking the easy path and I think those students who do will regret that decision later in life."
And another points out, "is the problem algebra? or that it is so badly taught? i would agree that we should make it more accessible.... but that can be achieved with more creativity in curriculum design, and ensuring that teachers are in love with the topic they teach, not merely 'certified' professional classroom manager. you can learn a lot of math from someone who actually loves (and understands) math." On that note, here's commenter Ben:
Is English literature necessary? I never ran into Moby Dick during my career.
Is Gym class necessary? I never had to do a pull up.
Is Physics necessary? When was I called upon to do vector analysis?
Is Biology necessary? I think only French Chefs have to dissect frogs in their careers.
It must be tough to teach. What's the point. Walmart has all the stuff we'll ever need. Supersize that happy meal. We're just turning into a bunch of consumers anyway, lets just stop pretending that we need to know anything.