Monday, July 30, 2012

What need one?

In The New York Times, Andrew Hacker asks "Is Algebra Necessary?" and says it's not. Using pejorative language like "prohibitive," he argues that algebra and pretty much all math is just a major impediment to keep "talented" students from getting a college degree. He supplies worlds of anecdata to support his point: he says he doesn't know any vet techs who need it, for example, although a slew of vet techs reply in the comments to say yes, indeed, they use algebra and other forms of math every. single. day. (For a logical analysis, see Timothy Burke's post.)

Some questions:

1. If math is so inherently limiting and a "barrier," why can other countries succeed at teaching it to students? Is it because they emphasize the work and patience necessary to grasp the concepts and emphasize that some knowledge is acquired rather than innate? Don't successful math classes in this country teach similar concepts of hard work?

2. Hacker cites the tracking system in Germany as an example of one possibility, and indeed it's the system that obtained in this country 50 years ago: "general" industrial preparation in math,  business math, and "college prep" math (algebra, trigonometry, geometry, calculus). That shift would question the gospel that all students should prepare to go to a 4-year college, though, which would be political dynamite. 

3. If we cut out all the challenging math and science classes on the grounds that they're keeping "talented" students away, won't this contribute to the hierarchy where those who go to Caltech and MIT (as he suggests) to be industry leaders have the chance to know all levels of math and the worker bees don't? 

4. In this effort to redefine college by eliminating a challenging subject, I was somehow reminded of this: 

Made you my guardians, my depositaries;
But kept a reservation to be follow'd
With such a number. What, must I come to you
With five and twenty, Regan? said you so?
And speak't again, my lord; no more with me.
Those wicked creatures yet do look well-favour'd,
When others are more wicked: not being the worst
Stands in some rank of praise.
I'll go with thee:
Thy fifty yet doth double five and twenty,
And thou art twice her love.
Hear me, my lord;
What need you five and twenty, ten, or five,
To follow in a house where twice so many
Have a command to tend you?
What need one?

1 comment:

Contingent Cassandra said...

I'm decidedly not a STEM type (though I did score in the 85th percentile on the math section of the GRE, which scared me a bit, given who else was in the same pool of test-takers), but, yes, I think algebra is necessary, if only as a pretty good test/developer of some basic logical-thinking skills. With some rare exceptions for learning disabilities, I'd say that a student who can't translate the sort of situation described in a basic word problem into an algebraic equation (or, for that matter, come up with hir own scenario to accompany such an equation) doesn't have the level of critical-thinking skills necessary for a whole range of college courses. I'm all for making multiple chances to enter and succeed in college available to the broadest possible range of people, at a variety of ages and stages of life, but there's also something to be said for gatekeeping mechanisms that keep people who aren't yet (and perhaps, in a few cases, never will be) ready from wasting time and money, and algebra seems like a pretty good one to me.

I guess that makes me really hard-core, since I want to see students pass algebra before they come to college (or at least before they start regular college work). But then I want to see basic reading and writing skills in place, too. The first step to making sure that a college degree still means something may well be making sure that a high school degree means something.