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Last month, Post education columnist Jay Mathews wrote a provocative little piece suggesting that maybe most high school students didn’t need to take Algebra II as part of their math program. As always, he applied his experience with school and life after to cover the rest of the world.

That includes me. I use math in my work but only the long division I learned in fourth grade. It helps me prepare my annual list of schools with high rates of college-level test preparation. A calculator I got free in the mail from SPCA International does the actual arithmetic for me.

Mathews’ inspiration for the column came from a Freakonomics podcast episode that discussed the same topic, although the host and guests on that podcast did a much better job of supporting their positions.

As I said, Mathews’ original piece was designed to get some blow back. Which gave him the material for his column this week.

 It is rare for opinion on any of my columns to be evenly divided. But the flood of comments I received on my piece about getting rid of Algebra II had good arguments on both sides, and indications of an emerging consensus.

Actually, I agree with Mathews. Removing Algebra II from the standard high school math program and replacing it with a probability and statistics course certainly would be an improvement for most students.

However, that’s not as revolutionary as he seems to think it is. Although I’m sure that small change would be a shock to many parents who worked their way through the standard math course sequence, one that’s been around for at least a couple hundred years.

What students really need is for us to throw out the entire traditional math curriculum and start over. Emphasize using math as a problem solving tool in a variety of situations. Learn to use calculators and computers, the tools we use out here in the real world.

Above all, drop the cookbook approach to teaching math. The one that says: Here are some ingredients. Find the recipe you need to produce this picture perfect result. Go.


I’ve seen the image above posted in many places around the web, but haven’t been able to find where it originated or who created the idea. It certainly illustrates the experience of most people who survive the standard K12 math curriculum.