Why Algebra?

New York state education officials are worried about the Algebra 1 Regents exam. They recently revamped the test and the passing rate fell, with less than 25% of students scoring at the “college-ready” level.

Those officials jumped into action.

This fall, they established a committee to study the results on the new exams to determine, among other things, whether the bar for passing, which students would have to meet starting in 2022, had been set too high. (They had originally said the class of 2017 would need the higher scores to pass, but last year decided to push that back.)

Their solutions, of course, focus entirely on test scores; how to get students to answer more of the questions correctly. Which means the same curriculum, taught using the same pedagogy, only more of it.

Among the ideas the city is considering: having fifth graders take math with a specialized instructor instead of one teacher for all subjects; teaming up with local universities to get more sixth- and seventh-grade math teachers certified in math instruction; creating summer programs for middle- and high-school students who are struggling in math; and training middle-school and algebra teachers in how to address students’ “math anxiety.”

In at least one high school, incoming students take Algebra for two periods a day, working with two different teachers. And, according to the very high percentage of passing scores on the Regents, it’s working. Even if, by devoting so much time to Algebra, “ninth graders are no longer taking art, music and health”.

With all the hand-wringing over test scores, few education administrators and politicians seem to be asking one basic question: Is completing Algebra really necessary for all high school students?

There are many defenses of algebra and the virtue of learning it. Most of them sound reasonable on first hearing; many of them I once accepted. But the more I examine them, the clearer it seems that they are largely or wholly wrong – unsupported by research or evidence, or based on wishful logic. (I’m not talking about quantitative skills, critical for informed citizenship and personal finance, but a very different ballgame.)

We talk a lot about Algebra being a “gateway” course, one that students need to be a success in college. And how learning the discipline of mathematical thinking (from Geometry, as well as Algebra) improves students’ reasoning abilities in other areas.

But in most schools, students don’t really deal with the concepts of mathematics, much less any meaningful study of it’s application. Algebra I is taught in basically the same way it was long before computers were portable and inexpensive. We still emphasize the memorization of algorithms and test students on how well they can crank through the mechanics that their phone could do far faster.

Then there is STEM. We must have students study Algebra (and the S – T – E subjects) in order to fill all the STEM jobs that will go unfilled, causing great economic tragedy for the US. Which is a fallacy in many different ways.

Nor is it clear that the math we learn in the classroom has any relation to the quantitative reasoning we need on the job. John P. Smith III, an educational psychologist at Michigan State University who has studied math education, has found that “mathematical reasoning in workplaces differs markedly from the algorithms taught in school.” Even in jobs that rely on so-called STEM credentials – science, technology, engineering, math – considerable training occurs after hiring, including the kinds of computations that will be required.

The bottom line is that, rather than worrying over largely meaningless test scores, we need to take a hard look at both whether we should expect all students to understand Algebra by the time they graduate,1 as well as how we teach the subject.

I think students would be far better served if they graduated with a solid, practical understanding of probabilty and statistics and how that math is applied – and misapplied – in the real world. Maybe we would have fewer adults wasting their money on lottery tickets and more of them questioning the sketchy numbers tossed around by business and political “leaders”.

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