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Ways of Seeing: Does teaching algebra cause more problems than it solves?

I was listening to “Sunday Edition” on CBC radio recently. The host Michael Enright was interviewing Queens College, City University of New York Political Science Professor Andrew Hacker about an op-ed piece he’d written last July. In it, he questioned whether we should be teaching algebra in schools. He cited some frightening statistics about our dropout rates in the U.S. — statistics that are not only scary, they’re down right shameful. Almost 25 percent of ninth-graders nationwide will fail to graduate. The dropout rates for minority students are higher than for white students, and not surprisingly, also higher among low-income students. Vermont, you’ll be happy to know, has one of the best graduation rates in the country, though we’re still losing more than one out of every 10 students. Although these numbers are trending down, they’re still not pretty.
Trending numbers leads me back to the question of algebra. Professor Hacker suggests that a big part of the high failure rate is due to math requirements in high school. He’s all for learning math in school and for striving toward quantitative literacy, but he isn’t convinced that learning polynomial functions and parametric equations is strictly necessary for adult competence. I have to make a confession here. The phrase “polynomial functions and parametric equations” sends little shivers down my spine, and not in a good way. Like Enright of CBC Radio I struggled mightily with algebra as a teen, and thinking about it evokes memories of tearful nights and endless hours of effortful studying, me wasted, my parents desperate, and my grades showing no evidence of a brain whatsoever. It was not a confidence-building experience. So when I think about what life might have been without those little x’s and y’s dancing across the pages in front of me, taunting little icons of my inability to master this intricate language, I have to wonder. Hacker suggests that many of the dropouts are students who may be inclined intellectually in other ways, the poets and philosophers. If they can’t hurdle that math barrier, he says, we may lose them.
And yet …
When Hacker argues that we don’t need algebra I’m led back to my own domain, thinking: well, we don’t need poetry to be successful adults either, strictly speaking. Or art. Or music. Or sports. Or anything in particular. Aside from the obvious point that these subjects make our lives better and more interesting, not to mention making us better and more interesting people, there’s something else that really bothers me about this assertion. It’s the future, and the way we can’t predict it.
An education builds foundations that lead from one skill to another, and from one discipline to another. For example, hard sciences are that much “harder” without math; without biology and chemistry, medical school is out of reach. It’s true that you could be an English major and go to med school after making up those science requirements, but would it be worth it if the requirements took you back to what you’d missed in high school? Probably not. In that way, doors are shut and possibilities foreclosed long before we know what we might want to do with our lives. Although he was talking about politics, David Brooks said something this week that I think applies here: “People are motivated when they feel competent. They are motivated when they have more opportunities. Ambition is fired by possibility, not by deprivation, as a tour through the world’s poorest regions makes clear.”
I’ll leave the actual debate about algebra to my mathematician friends — they know much more than I about what should be taught, though I expect it’s in the curriculum for a good reason already. But I do want to hold on to the idea that ambition is fired by possibility; that we don’t know what will spark our interests or that of our students down the road, that we can’t predict when and how that spark will catch fire. The last thing we should want for our young people is to deny them any opportunities to reach as high as they can and to try to have it all.
Claudia Cooper teaches in the Education Studies Program and English and American Literatures Department at Middlebury College and is executive director of Betasab Inc., a 501(c)3 nonprofit NGO providing homes and school support for orphans and vulnerable children and development opportunities for marginalized women in Ethiopia.

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