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Andrew Hacker, CUNY Professor, Questions Whether Algebra Is Necessary In Schools

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In a July 28 New York Times op-ed titled “Is Algebra Necessary?” Queens College political science professor emeritus Andrew Hacker questions the role of algebra in American high school education.

He cites the subject as being the main impediment to graduation. According to recent data, one in four ninth graders fail to finish high school. In 2008-09, this number was closer to 34 percent in South Carolina, and 45 percent in Nevada. Hacker writes that most of the educators he has corresponded with identify algebra as the major academic reason for these failures.

Even at the higher education level, of those who enroll in college, only 58 percent end up with bachelor’s degrees -- with the main barrier being freshman math. The City University of New York, where Hacker has taught since 1971, found that 57 percent of its students didn’t pass its mandated algebra course, and that “failing math at all levels affects retention more than any other academic factor.” According to Hacker, a national sample of transcripts found mathematics had twice as many F’s and D’s compared to other subjects.

The author goes on to cite John P. Smith III, an educational psychologist at Michigan State University who has studied math education and determined that “mathematical reasoning in workplaces differs markedly from the algorithms taught in school.” Furthermore, jobs that rely on STEM credentials -- those being science, technology, engineering math -- require extensive training after hiring, including specific computations that are necessary in the workforce. Hacker points out that Toyota recently opened a plant in a remote Mississippi county, where it has partnered with a nearby community college that boasts tailored classes in “machine tool mathematics.”

An analysis by the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce predicts that in the coming decade, only 5 percent of entry-level workers will need to be proficient in algebra or above.

“Mathematics is used as a hoop, a badge, a totem to impress outsiders and elevate a profession’s status," Hacker writes, noting that medical schools like Harvard and Johns Hopkins require calculus of all their applicants, even if the subject doesn’t have a place in the clinical curriculum or ensuing practice. He maintains that many institutions and occupations often install prerequisites “just to look rigorous.”

To conclude his piece, Hacker advocates the pursuit of alternatives to algebra, such as courses in what he dubs “citizen statistics.” These would teach students, for example, how the Consumer Price Index is computed, what is included and how each item in the index is weighted. Instruction would also feature discussion regarding the aforementioned factors.

According to Hacker, this process need not involve dumbing down, but should instead center on “quantitative reasoning,” which he argues ought to be taught beginning in kindergarten.

The author expresses hope that mathematics departments will consider creating courses in the history and philosophy of their discipline, and treat mathematics as a “liberal art, making it as accessible and welcoming as sculpture or ballet.” This reimagining of the subject could in turn boost enrollments, encouraging more than the current 1 percent of bachelor’s degree candidates to pursue degrees in mathematics.

Hacker’s op-ed incited a passionate response, with astrophysicist Rob Knop writing a rebuttal on his Scientopia blog in which he takes issue with Hacker’s point that because algebra is not required for most jobs, it should not be taught.

Knop writes:

If you accept that argument, we need to reevaluate the entire high school curriculum, and the entire core curriculum of all colleges and universities. I think most people would agree that you need to be able to read and write in order to function in today's society. Do you really need to be able to interpret themes in literature, however? Honestly, is anything that you do in high school or college English classes really necessary in the workplace, any more than algebra is?

He goes on to say that a college or university education does not embody job training, despite prevailing sentiment in North America. Rather, Knop says, a liberal arts education should be about expanding the mind and being able to think.

Liberal arts education is to make people into good citizens, not into good workers. They are to acquaint you with the intellectual achievements of humankind. That is why we read the Iliad, why we watch a performance of Hamlet, why we learn about the history of ancient Greece, and, yes, why we study algebra. Because we want people to be educated so that they understand the intellectual achievements that have made our society what it is today, and that will drive our society in the future. We're training people to be members of civilization, not employees.

According to a report released in May by the U.S. Department of Education, the percentage of high school graduates who had enrolled in math and science courses increased in all subjects from 1990-2009, with the exception being algebra I -- a class many students now take in middle school.

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