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In Defense of Algebra

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Just because most babies cry when receiving disease-preventing vaccinations doesn't mean that pediatricians and parents should halt the practice. Reasonable people realize that that the benefit outweighs the cost. Andrew Hacker's article in the New York Times, "Is Algebra Necessary?" starts from the questionable premise that since many students do poorly in algebra, they should not be subjected to learning it.

Success in algebra matters. The question we should be asking is what algebra should be taught. If it is merely computation with variables -- first with whole numbers, then with fractions, then with decimals -- we can justly question its usefulness in this age of technology. But algebra is so much more than that. The Common Core State Standards in mathematics call for students to be able to create equations that describe numerical relationships, to be able to reason abstractly and quantitatively, to be able to persevere at solving problems. Students as early as kindergarten, in Common Core, begin to practice the skills and knowledge leading up to mastery of algebra. A strong foundation in number operations and algebraic thinking will position many more students to succeed in a well-conceived, well-taught algebra class.

In STEM Help Wanted, Change the Equation's analysis of online job postings and unemployment data in the past three years finds that, even in a tough economy, STEM opens doors. Unemployed people outnumbered online job postings by well more than three to one. Yet job postings outnumbered unemployed people with a STEM background by almost two to one. Mastery of STEM, in preparation for a wide array of careers, is not possible without mastery of algebra, which is the language of STEM.

Corporate America understands that on-the-job-training will always be needed. Cutting-edge products and ideas inevitably require employees to learn new things. But, corporate America understandably balks at on-the-job-training that covers content that should have been learned -- like algebra -- before joining the workforce.

Let's not throw the baby out with the bath water. Instead, let's ensure that all students master algebraic thinking and problem-solving, the essence of algebra, regardless of their eventual career goals.