Mastering algebra is also like doing push-ups. There's nothing about push-ups that you're going to need to know later in life or that you would have to employ in some way on a job. But the fact remains: push-ups make your body stronger. Algebra makes your brain stronger.
While we generally agree with Hacker that significant improvements must be made, dumbing down the curriculum, or tracking students at an early age into college-prep or non-college-prep mathematics is not the answer.
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.
The reigning theory of human thinking argues not only that algebra and language share a neurological foundation, but that mathematical reasoning co-opted the evolved machinery of language for non-linguistic tasks.
Providing students with experiences that invite them to develop a variety of skills, understand and appreciate diverse perspectives and potentially uncover hidden talents and interests speaks to a fairly well-accepted purpose of school.
I piled cringe upon cringe Friday -- first because I read Steven Pinker's vivisection of Malcolm Gladwell's new collection, second because of what I found when I Googled a flub Pinker wielded against Gladwell.