Is Algebra Necessary?

Susan Ohanian Comment:

"Is Algebra necessary" was the provocative headline in a Sunday New York Times opinion piece by Andrew Hacker, Professor Emeritus in the Department of Political Science at Queens College and frequent contributor to the New York Review of Books. It provoked nearly 500 comments. I wish it had provoked two million. Instead of marching lockstep behind the Common Core, we need to ask questions like this. How much math? What kind of math? How much English? What kind of English? For whom? Back in 1893, the Committee of Ten, headed by the president of Harvard and made up mainly of university professors, college presidents, and private secondary school headmasters, declared that "the best education was the proper education for all." The present Common Core seems to be returning to that: One size fits all.

Teachers need to respond to this, and a good place to start is to answer Andrew Hacker's question, "Is Algebra necessary?" Or even important.

Here is the opening of Andrew Hacker's argument. You can read the rest here.

by Andrew Hacker

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.

My question extends beyond algebra and applies more broadly to the usual mathematics sequence, from geometry through calculus. State regents and legislators — and much of the public — take it as self-evident that every young person should be made to master polynomial functions and parametric equations.

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.)

This debate matters. Making mathematics mandatory prevents us from discovering and developing young talent. In the interest of maintaining rigor, we’re actually depleting our pool of brainpower. I say this as a writer and social scientist whose work relies heavily on the use of numbers. My aim is not to spare students from a difficult subject, but to call attention to the real problems we are causing by misdirecting precious resources. . . .


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